By BRANDON K. NOBLES
For Diana, part time muse and best friend,
My editor and nemesis, Fred,
And my personal assistant and student, Heather.
Thanks for keeping me sane.
WHEN THE CASE FELL INTO DETECTIVE NATE GREGSON’S HANDS, nobody really knew how many men, women and children were inside the church compound on Maynard Hill. From the information the department gathered, along with letters forwarded by worried parents and schoolteachers, Nate didn’t believe the danger of Zachariah Rohim’s cult could long be ignored. He flipped a page. Ah, and there it was. Affixed to a large folder on his desk was the portrait of a handsome young man with a strawberry birthmark beneath his chin.
Missing for 3 weeks now, Steve Harris had vanished after football practice, poof, without a trace. A popular running back on the Landsmore High football team, his disappearance rattled the community and brought Gregson’s attention back to the Church. A good Christian all her life, she hadn’t approved of what she found in those bright, laminated pamphlets. She claimed something changed in him, as though he were dreamwalking.
After a couple of months he quit school and was working every day in the heat helping the Community rebuild Solomon’s Temple. The kid was last seen Lowry St, at the Chinese buffet, across from the road that turns onto Maynard. His mother called every day, every day more desperate than the last. Her only son. Her strawberry blossomed boy, there were long answering machine messages of Mrs. Harris, not knowing she forgot to hang up, crying and blowing her nose into the receiver.
The movement was Messianic, utopian even, led by a man hailed as a living Prophet, conduit to God, who speaks by inspiration. A charismatic, handsome man in his late 60s, Father Rohim was hailed as Prophet by adoring crowds. Droves of people, young and old, rich and poor, people from all walks of life abandoned their jobs, their studies and their families to join the Church of the Living God, to belong, to live the communal life. Documents in Gregson’s folders suggested the founder of the church was once part of the Unified Church of God some decades earlier in neighboring Irmo county. Apparently a leadership dispute caused a split between the supporters of Rohim and the former Prophet’s six year old son. Rohim was an opportunist at heart, and he made the most of what he had; nothing. Now he lived in a compound that was estimated to be some 15,000 square feet with hundreds of devotees, hands, eyes, ears.
Nate’s job was a quiet one. Not a problem, he wrote around in his junky Corsica, his first and only auto. He was parked at the end of Lover’s Lane when the call went out. He was able to break up a disturbance that left three people bruised and bleeding and sent three people to jail. Two were too young to hold, but the other was cuffed and hauled in. The man was silent for the short drive from Campbell to the Sheriff’s Department on North 15th.
First he was forced to provide his name, which he gave as Arthur Lindler. But he had no ID. Inside the jailhouse, deputy Sharon searched him.
“Looky here, Nat,” his secretary Susan pulled a yellow pamphlet from the man’s back pocket.
She passed it to Nate and he opened it up, thumbing through it. Poorly xeroxed and falling to pieces, block words across the front of the thin volume read A GUIDE ALONG GOD’S PATH.
“Oh ho,” Susan cackled, “ding, ding, ding! We’ve got jail-time.”
“Weed or meth?” Gregson asked.
“Not sure, but it ain’t fucking sugar.”
The young man was booked and had his picture taken. Susan let him smoke a cigarette before she made him take off his shoes, pants, and put on the orange pajamas. Nate wasn’t interested in a middle aged man with an eight ball of methamphetamine, but the zeal with which this man had acted; as though triggered from afar for a greater purpose. He didn’t look so holy in orange. He remained quiet for the rest of the night, and Nate left him there and headed home.
He spent a few days studying the homily. From what he could tell, the church’s energy came from an urgent need to perfect themselves as humans. Prophets appeared whenever humans were struggling, to call attention to the evils of the world, to usher in an era of peace. Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, Muhammed and Jesus were equal, and their message genuine; God spoke in the context of individual cultures. Jesus would not have been able to spread the way of righteousness to Northern India, so another prophet was sent; in al-jahaliyya, the age of ignorance, the Prophet Muhammed was sent from the one God, a serious point for Rohim. founders of world religions had been prophets of the same God. Despite its melodrama, at the heart of it Gregson sensed the exertion of a great will, a passion and urgency uncommon in his experience. They quoted Suras and Sutras, the Rambam and Moses, the Zohar and Talmud.
The Church was not new to the community, not at all. Construction began when Gregson was still in middle school. On his way home each day, with his dad driving their Ford Bronco, he would look out across the lot at the bald men, the women clothed from head-to-toe in pastel cotton dresses. They worked without modern equipment, and Gregson’s father used to joke, “You’d think God would grant them power tools.”
In the years since the compound’s completion a lot had changed in Landsmore. An industrial textile mill on Central Avenue shut down, and investors and ready workers were quick to abandon ship. Gregson’s own mother, Virginia, a loomfixer and weaver at the plant, lost her job after 25 years of steady employment, six days a week, twelve hours a day. The economic distress was compounded by the swelling number of ever bored teenagers who, in Landsmore, had no access to entertainment; no cinema, no fast food joints, and with nothing to do, they found their way to Father Rohim’s compound.
“Crazy shit, ain’t it?”
Gregson sat at his desk in a converted closet at the back of his small apartment, looking over his files and spinning in his chair, unsure how he was to approach the case. Higher ups at the Department were nervous about a potential Waco or Jonestown, so it was decided the lightest possible touch would be the best way to go. Rumors around the office suggested that Rohim already had one of his creatures on the town council, so secrecy was paramount. When in doubt, Nathan Gregson had always relied on his brother-in-law Matt. So he stepped over the scattered papers on the floor, dodged the piles of clothes, and picked up the phone.
Matt answered immediately, “Hello?”
Nathan could hear his niece and nephew laughing in the background. It always brought a smile to his face.
“Hey man,” he said, “I’ve been thinking…”
“Shit,” Matt said. “Here we go again.”
“…Shut up for once, you twat and listen. What’s the best way to figure out what a cult member wants to do, you know, how could one find out what Rohim tells his flock?”
“I don’t get it,” Matt said. Then, “Oh, you’re not serious?”
“Why not?” Gregson asked. “Best place to hide a tree’s a fucking forest.”
Matt cleared his throat. “You’re serious about this?”
“His mother calls me to cry,” Gregson said. “And when I don’t pick up, she’ll leaving crying on my answering machine, just to remind me we’ve — I’ve done nothing for her.”
Gregson heard a door shut on the other end, “Hold on.” Silence. Matt returned a moment later, softly, “Now,” he said, “what if you go in and can’t get back out?”
“I’ll create a situation wherein it seems absolutely beneficial for them that I get out.
It was a question Gregson had yet to consider.
“I’ll think of something,” he said, finally. “Regardless, if I don’t go today, I’ll go tomorrow.”
“Let me know when you decide,” Matt said. “And I’ll do my part.”
He heard his niece crying in the background. He missed her, plump and sweet, she loved her uncle Nate yes she did.
“I have to go,” he said.
“Tell Alice I love…”
Gregson decided it would help his chances of being useful if he cleaned himself up a bit. Too claustraphobic for a bath, he took a bath in the sink. He soaked a washrag in soap and used it to clean his underarms and crotch, then washed his stomach and backside with soap and water. He had to part with his beard, however, and looked him over in the mirror. The sight of grey hairs wearied the young detective. The 29 year old would certainly miss his well-coiffed hair. A sturdy sort, and quite tall, Gregson had pale skin and large black bags under his eyes, which were shot and ringed pink from many a sleepless night. He lived in the Subertown Apartment Complex, not too far from the compound on Maynard Hill, in a row of identical looking townhouses. He packed his Topamax and Vicodin bottles inside his jacket pocket, not before taking his daily dosage, and sat on the front porch to get himself together. He looked at the row of houses across the street, covered in patches of sunlight. Some of those houses were falling apart and others had never been put together well enough o fall. He wasn’t outside long before the phone startled him and he ran back inside, throwing open his screen door.
“Hello?” he said, stepping over an overflowing trash bag.
“Detective Gregson?” said a familiar, sweet voice.
Oh no, he thought. Oh no.
“Yes, ma’am?” he said politely, grinding his teeth.
“Okay, now, I hate to bother you, and I know you’re working hard…”
“Yes ma’am, how can I help you?” “Okay I think Stevie tried to call me.” “You think he tried?” “There’s, look, there’s a recording on my answering machine. At first it’s just silence, okay, just fuzz but then you can hear people talking in the background. I’m sure it’s Stevie, but my hearing, it ain’t what it used to be I tell you that.”
“Oh yes ma’am… Well, do you think you could play it for me?”
“Oh yes sir Mr. Officer, I have it on my answering machine. I can put the phone up to it and play it for you.” “Give me a second,” Gregson said, putting his phone down. He pushed aside a stack of tangled cables and Beanie Babies and pulled out a two-way auxiliary cable. He plugged one end into his phone and the other into his stereo speakers.
“Alright,” he said, “play it.”
A plastic click, then static, before finally he could hear it in the background. A man was speaking, and — someone else was listening, someone younger. The older man’s voice was louder. Gregson put his ear against the speaker and strained himself to hear the rest. A young boy was being questioned but the words were unintelligible. And there they were. The flowing tears and wailing, begging like his life depended on it. A thud, then he screamed; Gregson could only imagine his mother’s horror. Another thud, sickening and empty, like a ham against a mound of dirt and the screams to follow were enough to chill the blood, to take one’s breath away. Sobs spilled through the speakers in high definition.
“That right there,” she said, “I know the sound of his tears.”
Gregson slammed the phone against the wall. A short drive from his apartment in Subertown and the compound on Maynard Hill. A short drive from Subertown, Maynard Hill was on the outskirts of Landsmore, right on the county line. He did not think; he kept Steve’s picture, got his car, and pulled out of his drive with a squeal of his tires.
He stopped by Wilson’s to get gas, groaned at the rising prices, and went inside to pay. Gregson also bought a pack of cigarettes, though he had promised his on-again off-again girlfriend that he would quit–among other promises he had broken. He backed out of the parking lot and turned onto Sycamore Street, a winding road lined by small, decrepit houses with boarded up windows and high grass growing in the front yards. Passing by Park Street Elementary, he saw his former first grade teacher outside with a group of children. She waved to him as he passed. With a kind heart and patient manner, Mrs. Shealy was professional and kind, worried by the unease she felt among the students who remained at Park Street. In a town of 800 people, there were 37 churches and one poorly stocked library. Gregson never liked that metric.
Turning onto Central, he drove between the two large parking lots in front of the mill’s ruins. Bereft of vehicles the lots housed large stacks of salvaged wood and timber. The hulking ruin rose high into the air, a monument to the people who originally settled and built Landsmore. The old tower, a redbrick ruin overran by ivy and kudzu, surrounded the base of the ruin which was stark against the stretch of blue sky and white wisps of clouds overhead. Many of Gregson’s family members had worked there at some time or other; he remembered when his aunt Denise used to work there, sweet Denise with her powerful fragrance and bright lipstick. Any clothes found to be defective–with a misplaced or misspelled logo–made its way to the Gregson household, a gift to Nathan and his younger brother Christopher.
Nathan Gregson stopped at the bottom of Maynard Hill and pulled his car off the side of the road, into a back alley that ran from Lowry Street all the way back to Subertown, a shortcut he used whenever he went bicycle riding around town and a nice place to hide and have a beer and a smoke. It didn’t take him long to bring the car in, cover it up with limbs and leaves as best he could, and, grabbing a jacket, lock it up. He hoped it would be there when he came back. He lit a cigarette and took a pull, glanced up at the endless stretch of blue sky. He wondered if he was getting in over his head. Before leaving his car, he called his sister Alice’s phone. Matt picked up on the first ring.
“Again?” he asked.
“I think I’m going to convert,” Gregson said. “But if I don’t do it now, I’ll change my mind and nothing will get done. It has to be done now. If you haven’t heard from me in six months, try to find me. Make sure you the Chief – and the Chief only that Daniel Miller’s ID and backstory needs activation. That way, if they look me up, they’ll find a repeat offender and drug addict.”
“You sure you can pull that off?” Matt laughed. “Alright, alright. If you must…”
“Listen to the recording, man,” Gregson said. “Whoever that was…”
“What recording?” he asked.
“Ah, the football player’s mom. She has a recording I think you should hear. Those sounds, that voice… “I have to do something. Look, if we don’t deal with it as a sapling, we’ll have to cut down the tree eventually.”
Matt was quiet, shocked at Gregson’s.“And don’t say anything to Ally,” Gregson said. “I don’t want her worrying about me.”
Matt sighed, and was quiet for a moment. “Alright, brother. Be careful, you hear? What should we tell She-who-must-not-be-told?”
“You’re her husband,” Gregson said. “You should know how to tell a convincing lie by now.”
“She’s too smart for that shit,” he laughed, but grimly.
“Take care of her, man. She’s an ass but I love her.”
“You know I will, brother… Just…just take care of yourself. Here she is.”
“What do you want, Nate?” Alice picked up.
Nate could hear her shift the phone from one ear to the other. He forced a laugh.
Gregson bit his lip. Tears welled up in his eyes. He wondered when he’d see her again, or his niece Samantha, his nephew Xavier. The thought was too terrible to consider, so he shook it off. “Hey, Ally. I’m going to be out of town for a while on a case. Can’t say much about it… I just wanted you to know that I love you. Tell our mother I love her when you see her. And give Sammy and the little professor a kiss for me, and tell them their uncle Nate loves them very much.”
There was alarm in her voice. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Gregson said, “I just don’t know when I’ll be back in town…”
“You’re not telling me the truth,” she said. “I know you, and I know when you’re lying.”
Gregson laughed. “Let’s just say, as it goes, I might as well be out of town. I’m working a case, Alice. I just wanted you to know I love you.”
He turned the phone off and closed it. Turning it over in his hand, Gregson wondered if he could get away with taking it inside the compound. Would they torture him, evict him? With no other way of contacting the outside world, he decided to take it in openly, nonchalantly, and hope he didn’t get caught. This came as something of a relief, as he only knew one way of sneaking a phone inside. It took him a few minutes to go through his phone and delete his contacts list. Though he was quicker to act than to think, Gregson was loathe to put anyone else at risk for his own stupidity. Before leaving his car, he made sure all the doors were locked and took another Vicodin. He looked at the pill bottle, then a ridiculous notion came to him. He slid the cellophane off his pack of cigarettes, poured half the remaining pills into it, and used his lighter to seal it up. Next, the embarrassing, uncomfortable, but necessary part. Gregson refused to risk a cold turkey situation surrounded by religious zealots. Sobriety was bad enough without waking up at 6am each morning and being lectured.
From there he walked the rest of the way up the steep incline of Maynard Hill which aggravated his old knee injury, making each step more painful than the last. Pills rattled in his pocket as he walked. When he emerged at the top of the hill, the compound, which consisted of several buildings, blotted out the sun. At the end of the lot was a high bell tower, and a high fence topped with concertina wire surrounding the compound. Comprised of two large buildings, housing adults and children, a playground and walkway leading up to the sliding, padlocked fence. Inside he could see seesaws and slides, jungle gyms and monkey bars. A long patch of earthen mounds rose up at the edge of the far end of the fence. Beside the building was a long, cobblestone walkway beneath an aluminum awning, which stretched some 35 feet from the fence to the door.
He took one last hit off his cigarette and flicked it to the ground as a young man with a smooth face and awkward smile approached him from the other end of the playground. Looking up and around him, Gregson would not have believed how massive the compound was; it took the young man quite some time to make it to the fence, where he stopped on the other side and glared at Gregson through the chain links. Gregson tried to make some mental notes.
“Is there anything I can do for you, sir?” he asked.
Gregson affected eyes full of tears and put on his most solemn expression. Then he withdrew the pamphlet and held it up. “I didn’t know where else to turn,” he said, wiping a tear from his cheek. “I thought the Prophet might be able to help me get my life together.”
The man on the other side of the fence smiled and gestured at a figure in the tower. A moment later the fence, its prominent bars glinting in the midday sun, began to creak and open. Gregson allowed himself to smile as he passed inside, onto the well trimmed grass of the Church. The man, pale with light blue eyes and a bald head that caught the sun, embraced him and held on tight.
“There’s nothing to worry about anymore,” he said. “I’m Samuel. Welcome to the community, Brother.”
With another gesture Gregson turned to watch the fence slide to a close behind him and clang against the metal post.
“Right this way, Brother,” Samuel said. “We’ll get you cleaned up, and then I’ll take you to see Father Rohim.”
“I’ve always wanted to meet a prophet,” Gregson said. “I have so many questions.”
Signed as finished 27 March 2019,
Author signature: Brandon K. Nobles
Editor signature:Fredrika McQueen
SAMUEL LED GREGSON INTO A SMALL OFFICE LIT BY A CRACKLING FIRE, surrounded by four, cheap walls that seemed to have been thrown up in a hurry. The whole compound had a hurried look to it, as though put together in haste. Out front was the belltower, which attached to the sermon hall. The walkway leading to Samuel’s office took them beneath an aluminum awning. The carpeting was brown and rough, stiff and scratchy. A single coat of beige paint covered the rough sheetrock walls. A large oak desk was in the center of the room, beneath a rattly ceiling fan and naked bulb. Pamphlets quite like the one Gregson found on the delinquents earlier in the week were spread across his desk. In the center of the room was a tidy desk, on top of which were a number of brightly colored, laminated pamphlets. A row of gilded crucifixes hung on either side of a large portrait which depicted an elderly man, thin of hair with a prominent nose. Though it was not the photograph on file, Gregson was certain the airbrushed photograph was the Prophet himself. Songs came from beyond a doorway to Gregson’s left, laughter and muffled voices.
Despite the ceiling fan the room was hot and stale. The air was heavy and thick, with an unpleasant chemical smell about it. Might be the paint, Gregson thought. Samuel seemed inattentive, as though something much more engaging was going on just beyond the door to the adjoining room. He kept looking from Gregson to the door and back again, as though he were in a hurry to have him sorted. Daniel’s heart thundered against his chest like a clapper against the bronze shell of his ribs which rang him like an unwitting bell. His stomach turned and knotted but he tried to keep the same, eager expression on his face. Samuel was a professional and his wide smile and large, unblinking eyes never flinched. The mask, if it was a mask, had fused with his face until whatever was once there had been replaced, a tailor made personality gifted him by a master forger.
Samuel cleared his throat and adjusted himself in his chair, weary of the stranger before him. It was rare for people to just show up at the compound; especially on their own. In Samuel’s experience, conversion was a family affair. He looked Gregson over for a moment before asking, “What makes you want to join our community?”
“I just feel so lost in my life,” Gregson said. He relaxed his face on the cusp of his hand. “I’ve lost my girlfriend. I don’t have a job. And I was going through this pamphlet and noticed that you offer counseling for people struggling with addiction… ” Then he burst into tears. He wondered what his father would think, now that he put those years in theatre to use for something important.
Samuel’s eyebrow rose but the wide-eyed stare and plastic smile did not falter, and the face as it was unto blown glass did not slip. An ill-fitting sort of mask, and eyes that made Gregson shift back and forth in the hard folding chair. He nodded pensively, “Mhm,” he said, “the people within these walls come from all walks of life, rich and poor, black and white. Many of the young boys here were once orphans, until Father Rohim his name be praised offered them a place to realize their potential. An outlet for their energy, a purpose.”
Gregson nodded. “I feel like I’ve just drifted through life,” he said. “From one thing to the next, without leaving anything behind. Like a ghost that has no one to haunt, and no reason to linger…”
“Yet it does.”
Gregson did what he could to hide his surprise. “Exactly,” he said. “I’ve never been much of a believer…”
“Daniel,” Gregson said. “My name is Daniel Miller.”
Samuel stood and crossed the room, taking this somewhat amiss, as he put his arm around Daniel’s shoulders. Daniel Miller was an identity he was given on an undercover case some years earlier, when he tried to bust up a methamphetamine ring operating out of Landsmore. Since the cover had never been blown, and those he hunted down were now behind bars, Gregson–Daniel Miller–thought it safe to use. The idea of his real name becoming known made him shiver.
“Relax, Brother Daniel. You’re okay now. First, before I take you to see Father Rohim, would you mind emptying your pockets?”
Daniel stood and slipped off his coat, passed it to Samuel. He hung it on the doorknob. Then he placed the bottle of Topamax on the table, followed by his near-depleted stash of Vicodin.
“Like I said, father, I’ve fallen on bad times…drugs, hopelessness…I never see my daughter anymore…”
Samuel took the bottles in hand and looked them over. “Do you have anything else?”
A shot of panic ran through him as his mind kicked into high gear. What about the phone? He wondered. If he gave it up now, and things went south, what would he do? Who would he call? But he acted quickly and took it out of his pocket. “I would like to keep in contact with my daughter,” he said but handed the phone over nonetheless. “And the Topamax, I have to take that each day along with a meal. That other stuff…” he gestured to the bottle of Vicodin, “that shit gives me the strength to keep digging a grave I’m afraid to get into. Life’s too painful to live, and I’m too afraid of dying to off myself.”
“Oh my dear Mr. Miller,” he said. “I do hope Father Rohim will decide in your favor. Now,” he took a leather satchel from a drawer in his desk, “I’m just going to put all this in a bag. If it is decided you will join The Community, you will have your property returned to you.”
This surprised Gregson. He was sure, as he walked the steep hill up to the compound, that his possessions would be confiscated on arrival. To be fair, he thought, they were – but the hope of having his phone returned kept him cheerful as his last dose of Vicodin–along with what he could stash elsewhere–began to work its chemical magic, relaxing his nerves as a wave of warmth fell over him like an itchy blanket. He shifted in his seat at the prod of the pack of cellophane hidden in his rectum, filled with enough Vicodin to get him through a potential cold turkey situation. Every time he shifted in his sheet, he regretted sticking the sharp plastic in his ass. What would mother think? He wondered. Shame rolled over him in waves. He missed her, and he decided if he ever made it out, he would make things right.
Samuel placed his belongings back in the top drawer, locked it. And, to Gregson’s surprise, he returned to his seat, pulled out a clipboard and pen. He cleared his throat.
“Before I give you a tour,” he said without looking up, “could you answer some questions for me?”
Sweat beaded down his forehead and anxiety overtook him, the chest pain, the sense of impending doom, the feeling that he stood on a high ledge and could do nothing to stop himself from either falling or flinging himself over. He stuttered, “Sure.”
He had a good idea of what Samuel intended to do; he would ask around about a Daniel Miller and, if all was still in place, and Matt had done the right thing and got off his ass, it would all check out. Hopefully, Gregson thought, Sheriff Epps had not been compromised. Landsmore was an island amid forests, surrounded on all sides, and if Rohim infiltrated the Police Department, it was possible that he could take over the entire town. Samuel called his name again, and he realized he had not answered to Daniel when first called.
“Sorry,” he said, clearing his throat. “I’m just nervous. I don’t know what I’ll do if you don’t take me in…”
“I understand,” Samuel said. Big smile, hollow eyes. “Now, shall we?”
Gregson leaned back. “Alright then, go ahead.”
“What’s your date of birth?”
“April 17th, 1989.”
Sam scribbled something down.
“Your father’s name?”
“And your mother?” he continued writing but did not look up.
Gregson hesitated. “Linda Miller.”
“How did you come to hear about us?”
“I’ve read your pamphlet, and talked to a missionary the other day.”
“Some of our more recent converts,” he started, “are a bit, how do you say, enthusiastic. One kid came in a few weeks ago, nothing but skin and bones. He was living under the bridge, shooting meth and stealing to feed his addiction. But here, with the help of an extensive family and support network, he’s been clean for two weeks and has become a valuable member of the family. I understand their zeal. It can be overwhelming for someone who has been shunned for their entire life, or someone who has gone through a painful divorce, lost a friend or loved one, to find support and friendship, and in doing so they come to know the love of God.”
Gregson nodded. “I’m sorry if I implied…”
“That’s quite alright,” Sam said. “Any allergies, food or otherwise?”
Gregson gave him a rueful smile. “Yeah,” he chuckled. “Strawberries.”
Samuel looked at him from behind the clipboard. “Really? Strawberries?”
Gregson shrugged. “I told you, I’ve never really been a believer. After all, what kind of loving God would sentence a man to death by strawberry?”
Samuel laughed an eerie, affected laugh, as though he was attempting to imitate human behavior he had but read about. He finished scribbling and then tore the page off the clipboard and filed it away inside another desk drawer. “You know,” he said, standing. “My mother told me once, that we should not curse God for what he does not allow. Rather, we should praise God for what we have. You may be allergic to berries, Brother Miller. But the air, however, is free.”
Gregson had never thought of it like that, but the notion appealed to him.
The noise from the adjacent room rose, ever more ebullient and effusive, happy even.
“I think that’s all for now,” Samuel said. He put his pen and clipboard away. “Now, since Father Rohim is deep in prayer until noon, I can show you around in the meantime, acquaint you with some of your future brothers and sisters?”
“I always wanted a family,” Daniel said. “Please.”
The room adjacent was wide and spacious, comfortable and fragrant. Potted plants and vases adorned the walls and expensive cabinets were installed above the stove. There were three women there, Ethel, 59, and her two daughters Lindsay and Lauren. A long couch wrapped around one side of the room, and they each sat beside each other, close and intimate. A fireplace in the middle of the room had a grill over it and the air smelled of grilled cucumbers and squash.
When they noticed the newcomer, Lauren, less cautious with Heretics than her sister, approached the New Brother and embraced him warmly. Her sister, who, with fair hair and bright pink cheeks could not be more different than her sister. While Lindsay remained stand-offish as Samuel introduced Brother Daniel. Ethel, a former shift manager at the Mill looked at him with searching eyes. Gregson panicked. He knew her; not long after the jobs were shipped out of town, a riot broke out among the workers who refused to turn over the last of the material products. The police were called out and, Gregson being a ride-along gopher then, stood outside as the tear gas flew, as the workers choking eyes watering finally gave in. Gregson gave her a bottle of water. Those eyes, though, intense and wide, gave no hint of recognition. Her toothy smile and maternal manner was genuine and, when she called Daniel son a part of Gregson felt loved. The walls were painted baby blue, adorned with billowy clouds and the sun and stars. In the corner, next to an empty door frame which led off into a narrow pantry. A tall bookshelf covered in dusty volumes stood in the corner, stack with obscure volumes by God knows who.
Everything was clean. No roaches, no trash, no dirty dishes. Ethel was quick to offer Gregson a cup off coffee and something to eat. The sisters, 15 and 17 years old respectively, wore long cotton dresses. Their hair was curled into a high coif at the top of their forehead and tight french braids ran down their backs. Daniel found them charming and enticing, smiles as bright and pure as the driven snow, sparkling wide blue eyes.
“Ladies,” he said, “this is Mr. Daniel Miller. He hasn’t met with Father Rohim yet,” the thin, pale man gave Gregson a terse smile, “but I think we can go ahead and welcome him to our family.”
The elderly woman was quick to stand, smooth her dress and approach me. She pulled Gregson into a bear hug, her heavy bosom pressed hard against his chest. “It’s so nice to have you with us,” she beamed. Still blessed with beauty and a quick charm, Ethel was shrewd and attentive. She watched her daughters with the precision of a security camera, especially when they got too close to the Stranger. Despite the relative comfort, Gregson sensed something amiss. A tension, an expectation lingered in the room. When the chorus of bells smote on the afternoon air the brothers and sisters near jumped from there seat. The bells banged against each other and the notes rang out, tied to a foot pedal that allowed for the notes to be held. Sam took Gregson by the arm, and Daniel was eager, near ecstatic to meet Father Rohim.
“What now?” Daniel asked.
“Just follow me,” Sam said. “His Holiness will want a glass of milk, and on my way I’ll introduce you. You tell him your story, and I’m sure he’ll do all he can to help.”
Samael put his hand on my shoulder and I near jumped out of my boots. “Come,” he said. “His holiness will explain.”
Before I could back away I felt something slip into my waistband. I did nothing to draw attention to it but hid it away quickly. “Anyway,” I said, finally moving away, “It was nice to meet y’all.”
“Right this way,” he said, leading Gregson from the room. He was down a cement flight of stairs and passed a row of doors along a long corridor. Every five feet there was a door, and halfway to the end of the hall, Daniel was told, was Father Rohim’s private chambers. There he prayed and wrote his sermons. As Gregson passed the cheap doors in poor frames he could hear young girls talking to one another. The first ten rooms, on either side of the hallway, were the female dorms; girls lived with their mothers, sisters, aunts and nieces; young boys, halfway down, likewise lived with fathers, brothers, uncles and nephews in identical rooms, with up to five people packed in a singular room no bigger than 12 by 12 feet. A thick pallette covered the floor and a long table was pushed against the wall, where they studied and learned to read and write. The girls learned to cook and sew, how to keep house.
The pair stopped outside Rohim’s door. Gregson wished he could sneak another pill, but he decided he would attempt to look at life there at the Compound from the perspective of the people who came looking for something; what someone forget, he knew, is that reasonable people end up in restrictive, controlling cults before they know it, seeing the revered figurehead as their totem, the figurehead of power that represented the shedding of their own weakness and lack of purpose, which Father Rohim dutifully supplied.
“Wait here,” Sam said. “I will announce you.”
He looked into Daniel’s eyes, as though he was, through the optic nerve, peeling Nate apart, layer by layer, scratching at the inauthentic eyes staring back at him, the faux smile that did well to deceive. But, when he came out and opened the heavy door, creaking as it swung on rusted hinges, he warned:
“Just don’t lie,” Samuel said. “He’ll know.”
Gregson decided it was best not to respond; nervousness was natural, no reason for them to suspect subterfuge. Sam leered at him a moment, “Good luck, Mr. Miller. And God bless.”
Samuel tapped each door he passed, rapped against it once, and walked to the next door, knocked and repeated until the halls were filled with two rows of people on opposite sides; men lined up and halted until their female counterparts departed. Strict rules were in place to keep teenage boys and girls separated. When the dorm rooms were empty, a man with a large belly and broad shoulders went from room to room with a cleaning lady, pushing a cart. Gregson swallowed in a dry throat and grabbed the door handle. It was hot to the touch.
I can do this, he told himself. Deep breath, deep breath. His backside had started aching and the pressure mounted. Suddenly he turned the golden knob and stepped inside. Silence greeted him on the threshold and cold air greeted him. The heavy door closed behind with a quiet click behind him. The room was lit by scattered candles, gaslamps on coffee tables and stools, tables covered in books and papers. A mantlepiece above the fireplace was lined with antique books and dusty volumes. Featured prominently above it was a large, framed print of Caravaggio’s painting of Abraham and Isaac; Isaac, a child with a hair of curls, face frozen in horror with his face pressed against the altar; to the left, an angel stayed the knife in his father Abraham’s hand.
Hunched over the fire with clasped hands, the bones in his spine, each lumbar could be seen sticking up along his spine like a scaled reptile, a lizard with proper posture and comportment. Rohim wore a beggar’s robes, and a ritual tefillin, a black leather strap wrapped seven times around his wrist and forearm. His eyes were alert, but yellow and rheumy; his fingers gnarled and spindly, like spider’s legs, and his large head nested between two shocks of stringy white hair above his ears. A fragile figure, his small frame, spindly arms, and visible backbones belied the force of character within.
“Come now,” said Father Rohim, “let us speak, son.”
Completed 2ND CHAPTER – as far as I know.
SIGNED 26 MARCH 2019
Author signature: Brandon K Nobles
Editor’s signature [sign when complete, Fred]
As he got closer to the thin figure in his oversized mantle he saw a knotted forehead shiny with sweat and a prominent nose, sharp deep set eyes and grandfatherly smile. Rohim had a handful of peanuts and cracked them in his hands, tossing the shells into the fire. He handed Daniel a pecan balance on the end of a knife glinting in fire light.
Zach took the time to look me over, top to bottom, as I approached. He smoothed back his wild hair, balding as he was, and leaned back. He took a handful of pecans from a low table behind him and began to crack them in his hands, tossing the shells in the fire. He offered me a fresh pecan.
“Thank you.” I said.
“Please,” he said. “Sit down.”
I took a seat in a ragged wooden rocker beside him, a bit too close to the fire for comfort.
“Are you comfortable?” he asked, looking at his pecans. A bit warm, I resisted the urge to slide away from the fire. He was quite close to it.
“I’ll be fine,” I said.
He smiled. “Have you ever been swimming, son?”
Zachariah looked at me like he saw past me, no skin, just a brain and heart sitting before him, suspended on a tuft of air.
“I did,” I said. “Yeah, when I was growing up.”
“Ah, as did I,” he nodded. “I remember standing on the deck at my aunt Maria’s house. Everyone shouted, “Jump in.” It was a warm summer night, and the air felt good against my skin. The water, it was ice cold. I dipped my toe in, and recoiled. But, Henry, my youngest brother, he pushed me in and laughed.”
“I’ve pushed in many a younger brother,” I added.
Zachariah smiled, cracked open another pecan. “And of course, I hit the water and could swear steam rose off the water, like breath in the winter. I must’ve been cold for 15, 20 minutes before, gradually, the water warmed. The temperature did not change, mind. Thirty minutes later, I splashed about, having a good time. Now, here’s what I find interesting. When I got out, the air was as cold as the water had been, and again I was freezing, so I jumped back in for warmth.”
“The temperatures did not change, friend. I did. That there’s interesting to me.”
He handed me a fresh pecan. “Are you too close to the fire?”
I took the pecan, “Thank you, no. I’m comfortable.”
He leaned back in his rocking chair. “They call me Zachariah because they can’t pronounce my name without spitting,” he laughed. “You know what they say, Yiddish is German with more phlegm.”
“Are you Jewish?” I asked.
He looked at me with a knowing smile. “My grandparents were Polish, but my family has been in this country for a hundred years. I have many brothers, many sisters, baruch Hashem. But, if you are asking if I keep the Law, yes sir I do.”
“The Ten Commandments?”
He laughed, shook loose the cracked nuts, and stood. “Come,” he said, limping. “The mitzvote number some six-hundred plus, if memory serves. But, we all fall short. We are not commanded to be perfect, son. Only to try.”
“I’d like… to ask you a few questions, holiness.”
He paused at the edge of a fine laquered table, leaned against it. “Anything you’d like, son.”
“What’s with all the crucifixes?” I asked.
He turned his back and started speaking.
“Have you ever considered, or even thought about, how many prophets, saviors, messiahs and enlightened ones have lived in human history? Majavera, the prophet of the Jains…” I stood and slid the listening cross from the cuff of my jacket and placed it behind a row of books atop the mantlepiece, beneath the line of figures in cruciform.
“To this day, they refuse to kill anything. Any thing. They wear surgical masks and sweep the ground before them as they walk, all to avoid the harm of any creature’s jiva, or ‘divine spark’. They drain their water to ensure nothing is accidentally swallowed. They treat mosquitoes better than some men treat their fellows…”
Moving as he spoke, Zachariah turned on a lamp in the corner of his room. “Many of them, more often than not, arrive at a similar, culturally applicable code. The men, the women–the prophets and prophetesses, they rise in times of spiritual need, in times of despair and want. Not to give everyone what they want, no, but to show them how much they already have, and how valuable it is.”
I nodded like a fool, entranced by this feeble old man. I began to understand, so I thought, why so many might find comfort in this convent, with such a leader. That was also his danger, this ability to get one to drop one’s guard, only then to slither in like a botfly, in the ear, which eats away at individual thoughts one by one before they’re eaten up, before it bursts out leaving behind nothing but hollow men.
“Tell me about the hollow men, holiness,” I said. “Is it literal? Figurative? Should the town be worried?”
“No, sir,” he said. “Come, let’s have something to eat, and we’ll talk. I’ll answer all your questions.”
At the far end of his private chambers was a heavy wooden door which led out into a large kitchen and cafeteria. Long tables stretched out from one side of the room to the other, the floors coated in shiny yellow linoleum, the food counters of stainless steel. Behind the counter was a large storage room, full of canned goods, cornmeal, potatoes, tomatoes, grits, and breadcrumbs; a gala of soups, tomato, clam, chicken. Zachariah walked behind, head downcast, looking at the baskets of fruit and whistling. A line of women with hairnets and rolled up sleeves stood behind the countertop, ladling gravy onto a yellow tray of mashed potatoes, fresh pear slices, and, when I arrived at the front of the line, a glass of orange juice and a warm smile.
“There ya go, hon,” she said.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said.
“Thanks, Beatrice,” Zachariah said, “You have a jar of olives?”
“One second,” she disappeared behind the counter. A moment later she rose up, exclaiming, “Here we go!” She passed a jar of olives to Zachariah. A smile crossed his face. “Thank you.”
He looked back to me, “Shall we?”
We went to one table amid many, with round stools attached by aluminum pipes. Sturdy, hard plastic seats, not as uncomfortable as they looked; we sat down and he bit into an olive. “I’ve always loved olives,” he said. “Please, son, enjoy your food.”
The lunchroom workers shifted into high gear; they turned on pots, boiled water; others shucked corn, prepared baby formula and Gerbers softpeas. A loud clang as double doors opened at the other end of the room and multitudes of robed men, the acolytes, all having shaved their heads as a sign of devotion. Behind them followed the women and children, in step, in sync, by mood and will. “Unity must be of purpose,” Zachariah said. “All other unity is artificial – race, nation, party – if they are not of the same purpose, it is folly; they will pull themselves to pieces, and unravel like a ball of twine when the fervor of the moment passes. Here, we have unity of purpose, common interest and a righteous cause.
“All of these people here chose to be here, to recognize their potential, and are free to leave at will. Do you know how many of these people roamed the streets like strays, sleeping beneath bridges and eating out of dumpsters before they found their way here? Discarded by their families, their churches, especially when the mill shut down; that’s when they flooded in. Some were petty criminals, breaking into houses and selling their plunder. Some were tender hearted people the world had no trouble grinding underfoot. ”
I chewed with my mouth shut. Always a gentleman, I dabbed a heavily starched napkin at my lips and set it aside. I pushed away my plate. I reached into the inside pocket of my vest and handed the Prophet the picture of the widow’s boy. “Have you seen this young man?” I asked.
He looked at me with a stern, thoughtful expression. “When people come here, they wash away who they were. If this young man entered, he is no longer here.”
“Nah, that doesn’t work for me, see. Now, I respect your operation here. Poor people, orphans, they need to be fed. That’s charity. But when they come into my city and scare my people, then we have a problem, when hollow men are loose in this town, well, I need to know what that means.”
“Al-shabah,” he said. “It’s Arabic. Think, we have words for spirit, for ghosts, but not quite for this concept. It literally means, ‘Dead but still walking’. It refers to someone who, without passion or fervor, watches life pass them by like the seasons; they consume, led by their nose, by their lusts, their greed and ambition. The hollow men have nothing left but need, and are strung along by their desire like a fishhook in their mouth, dangling as a catfish hung on the end of a fishing rod. Now, I have time to give you a brief tour before the sermon…”
“I’d like to find…” I raised the photo again, “this young man. Holiness, you won’t believe how many calls I get over this one young man. People are worried. So, how about you let me see him, I take back a message to his family maybe, and we can let this last disruption slide.”
Zachariah looked past me, as though there was a whole dimension just over my left shoulder. The clanking of spoons and plastic trays and muffled talking filled the room, the discord of cutlery and heavy smell of rye. Many of the acolytes, I noticed, took but a bowl of rice and sat, legs crossed, beneath a fire above which, in elegant folds of royal purple, bore ever more ancient script.
I drank the rest of my orange juice, “Look, holiness, you seem nice enough…”
“I’m just an abbot, a rasul, a slave of God.”
“Fair enough,” I dabbed the napkin at my mouth again. “Now, think you could show me around, see if we can find a young bald man with that–” I tapped the photograph with my index finger, “–that pattern of birthmarks, a little constellation of moles on his upper cheekbone, there? You see that?”
Zachariah nodded. “Come, I’ll show you around, and, though you won’t thank me, I’ll show you what we fear.”
A woman with her hair pulled back in a sporty ponytail, pale pink lips and green eyes approached the table. “Did you enjoy your meal, sir?” she asked. She had the same intense glare in her eyes, happiness in her bearing.
“Yes, thank you, ma’am,” I said.
She was quick to take our trays, bow to Zachariah, and head off. “That’s Bea’s daughter, Liza,” Zachariah said. “Sweetest girl you could ever meet, and a wise friend.”
He struggled from his seat, and Samael, at the back of the lunchline, hurried over to meet us and help His Holiness get to his feet, steadying himself on the handle of a polished walking stick. Samael greeted me with a smile, with those bright eyes, almost eerie, the eyes of a two-way mirror. Being there started to make me nauseous, and I lacked the nerve to really push my case. I wondered whether I should give Zachariah the confessions of Lauren, and reveal the note stuffed in my waistband while in the nursery. How many more had plastered masks with happy smiles and blank looks affixed to a frightened animal below, unable to summon the nerve to pass a note, to climb the fence and try to crawl over barbed wire to freedom, or to risk the man who stood vigil at the guard tower.
We left the cafeteria, alighted onto a cement walkway that led to another building, grass on both sides of the path, hedges and potted plants, fragrant and lovely in the sun of a waning day. I checked my watch, nearly 1500; I’d have to get the taps in place, a place where they could pick up the most information, with the least amount of risk of being found. I paused, leaned down to tie my shoe and slid the last crucifix from my shoe. A small thing, it would be inconspicuous enough. I put it in place above the arch leading into the cafe in a quiet, quick motion. Zachariah limped forward with the help of his cane. I hurriedly placed the cross against the vinyl just above the door, the gathering place where the acolytes and nuns stood waiting on their meals to be prepared, where priests and acolytes with censers lined up and chatted before they dined.
Zachariah led me up a flight of stairs onto a long porch, covered in planks of wood with, as of yet, no varnish. “Be careful now,” he said. “We just finished laying these, and I’m afraid you need to watch out for splinters.” Inside, the doors opened up to wide, empty space, with tables covered in building tools strewn about the room. Workers hammered away at a picture, raising it above an office just to our right. A stairway to our left circled upward, “That’s where our new dorms are going to be,” he said. “We’re starting to get crowded, and here’s where we’ll start our first school. Here we’ll teach the children how to read, how to write. Teach them kindness, and compassion.”
“And teach them about the evils of the world?”
“Follow me,” he hobbled away, turning around a corner of naked sheetrock.
He led me into a hallway with a window that peered into a room of tiny beds. “And this will be our nursery,” he said. “Lauren, one of our newest converts, is expecting. By the time the child is born, we’ll have a dedicated nursery; an on-staff OB and pediatrician. Our on staff doctor…”
“I’d like to have his name, please,” I said. “Before I leave, of course.”
Zachariah smiled, “Of course.”
Drills whirred as we talked, hammers rang against walls, the grunts of manual labor and men talking came from down the hall. “But come, we can finish our interview in my office, and from there I will see you out.”
“I’d like to see Lauren,” I said. “To congratulate her, holiness. Before I leave.
When my sister’s son was born, you couldn’t keep me away.”
I shook my head. “Separated.”
“Something troubles you, I can sense it,” he said. “What was her name?”
His eyes focused on mine, piercing and alive, but his gaze was distant, hypnotic and unwavering. While his manner and bearing was soft, fatherly, and his frail frame and grandfatherly appearance made it easy to confide in him, thinking without doubt that he could understand.
“Just regrets,” I said, “too many regrets.”
“Everybody has regrets,” he said. “Perhaps that is why you slump, son.
Because you have a giant key in your backpocket.
“I ruined the best thing that ever happened to me, as I always do.”
He placed his hand on my knee. His eyes glazed over with a film of tears. “What
“It was an accident, I tell myself that, but it is also true I met her by accident. I was writing a book, long before I took the police exam. I had tutored math and physics in college, so I decided to write a history of classical physics, from Ptolemy to Niels Bohr, and I tried to message someone else, but messaged her by accident. I mistook her for her sister, since I didn’t remember her name. Me and her sister were the same age, in social studies together, and I mistook the two. She answered enthusiastically about my work. We had a lot in common, immediately. Within weeks we talked on the phone for five and six or even eight hours, all day every day we talked.”
“Sometimes to appreciate the loss, we have to work our way to a solution, to make things work out for the best.”
“There’s no going back, holiness. There are lines not meant to be crossed, and I crossed more than my share. A great sin… a sin.”
“Start from the beginning, son.”
“We talked over the internet for a while, wrote poetry with each other, made love and loved each other. Before we ever met, we were best friends. The first time she came to see me, she got out of her SUV and, I still remember the first thing she said to me. ‘Damn, you are REALLY tall.’ Not much of an achievement, really. I spend a lot of time by myself, so I was kind of shy. I mean, I’m reasonably clever, I think, but I’m not an underwear model. But, she sat close to me. She smelled warm, if that makes sense; she had olive skin, a regal hauteur, a royal Italian beauty. A smile like a string of pearls, I was in love. I just didn’t know what to do. I held her hand. We were sitting on a couch in my room, a studio apartment, watching King Lear. Halfway through it, where the King is so pissed off he’s yelling at God, with no one there to save him but his fool, she kissed me and I kissed her. It’s hypnotic, to fall in someone’s arms, you risk not getting out. Problem is you risk getting thrown out too.
“We saw each other off and on and talked for hours on the phone. I wrote her poetry, as though I were some bard, some troubadour from chivalrous times, a song for Isabella, songs of his fair lady. I just had very little money. Her father–now this is..” I broke off, wondering how he’d manage to get me revealing so much, so quick.
“Don’t be afraid of the fire, son. You might have to walk through it, as Dante did. You can be who you want to be.”
“Not without her.”
“What sin have you committed my son?”
I fell open again, wanting to confess. “I broke one of the Commandments, holiness. Thou shalt not steal.”
He nodded simply. “Ah, yes… Did not the Messiah Yoshua allow breaking commandments in the service of the holy? It is written, ‘When the trumpets sounded, the soldiers yelled, at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword all living things in it, men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and asses.’”
“It was not my conquest, to take the holy land. I harmed the innocent, holiness. It had no purpose, nothing but to satisfy my debauchery.”
“What is it you have done, my son?” he leaned over and put his hand on my knee. “Confess, and let this weight be off you. Our purpose in life cannot be realized with the burden of Atlas bearing down on us.”
At the time I did not realize how weird it was; he was able to instantly win my trust, make me feel safe and understood, to bring out ideas as I thought them. I did not realize at the time how this type of initiation unto control worked. But, in the moment, I confessed to him my crimes, weeping and sobbing.
“I spent the night at her house, to work on a story. It was the first time I ever got to go in. She had a bottle of whiskey, and her kids played with her cat in the living room, and on our way there, I lost my laptop. I was in a hurry and nervous and left the satchel on top of the SUV, never saw it again. When we found out, we tried to go back to find it. I made a few phone calls, had two friends go walk by my house. Both said it was gone. My medicine was in that bag, my drugs. I needed them to work, to function. And when I lost them, I stole her children’s. First his cough syrup, then her ADHD meds. She had to call the teacher while I stood there drowning on dry land; that’s regret, it’s how a man can drown without getting wet. We spent the night having the time of my life. Eating Chinese food, and I helped her kids with homework. It felt like everything came together in perfection, my life was worth living, there with her and when she finally went to sleep, I stole from her children. Kids I love. Kids I miss… She was the only star in the sky, holiness, she was holiness, a gentle rock and romantic friend, wise and funny, strange and singular, in a word – heaven, nirvana, the lap of God, and I slipped. I’ve been falling since.”
I was crying then. The effect such conmen have is subtle and, strangely, makes the victim volunteer such private information.
“In John 7:53–8:11, we hear tell of the woman taken in adultery. The Pharisees bring her to Jesus, Hoping to catch him in a trap they ask what should be done. Should the Law of Moses be obeyed, or should Jesus contradict his own teachings on forgiveness? Well, he has a way out. He kneels and begins to write upon the dirt. He famously says, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. And, gradually, as he writes, people begin to back off. When he looks back up, everyone is gone. Everyone but the woman. He says, ‘Is there no one left to condemn you?’ She says, ‘No, Lord.’ He says, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’ And, Nathan, I condemn you neither. Go and sin no more.”
I bowed instinctively, blissfully unaware of the effect upon my person. I had slipped, somehow, under the control of an expert craftsmen using heat to bend a vessel into shape, there to refill it, to circumvent its interlocutor and override it. Until you became an extension of the leader’s power over others. But, he had a real effect on me. I decided I would call her, and that I would sin no more.
Zachariah made to speak but was interrupted by a young man who hurried in and startled when he noticed me sitting there, legs crossed.
“Maître, un fille s’est échappé. Nous avons des chiens sur le sentier et Simeon chasse. Elle n’aurait pas pu aller trop loin.”, he said.
Zachariah stroked his beard, nodding. “Ne la blesse pas, mais mets-la dans la boîte quand on la trouve.”
“Oui,” the fresh faced acolyte nodded. French! I could near make out the words. And what I could understand frightened me.
He turned to me, “Oh, dear. I’m sorry,” he said. “Isaac, son,” Zachariah said in that gruff, solemn voice, “would you help our friend here find his way out? He needs to run back through the mess, see if he can locate his friend. You wouldn’t know anyone who came in recently under the dead name, ‘Steve’, would you?”
“I can look at the list of dead names,” Isaac replied.
He was a handsome man with blue eyes and a neatly trimmed beard, neat and somber in his demeanor. I stood up, reached across the desk and shook the prophet’s hand. It was leathery, calloused, old. “It was nice to meet you, holiness. I’ll congratulate Lauren on my way out.”
Isaac cast a nervous glance at Zachariah. “I’m afraid that’s not possible,” he said.
“I’m afraid it’s going to have to be made possible,” I repeated.
Zachariah rose, hands up. “Wait a minute now, son. What happened, Isaac?”
The young man stood up straight. “She wasn’t at roll call, when Leonard did the count after the lunch. Ethel said the last time she saw her she was headed to the women’s toilet on the second floor.”
Zachariah looked at me. “I think that’s all for today, detective. Now, if you want to come back for Sunday service, I’ll make sure that we find your boy in the photograph, and make sure he gets word out to his concerned mother.”
Figuring I’d do no better by pressing the matter, and confident in the bugs, I relented. Isaac showed me out, silent as the grave, as we retraced my steps from the new school building, across the walkway, back into the cafeteria. It was empty, then, but the women from the lunch counter were still there, hairnets on, sweeping and washing tables, taking out the trash. From there we passed through Zachariah’s room, now cold, as the fire must have died. We walked on, down the cement walkway, up the stairs, and into the nursery. The room was empty, the women and children gone, the playpen empty; all the dinosaur toys put in the large toy chest in the corner. An eerie feeling came over me, for Lauren’s sake, and finding myself back in Samael’s office, I stopped to thank him and wish him a good-day.
Samael did not look up. Instead he kept on mumbling to himself, his face bright red, eyes bloodshot. Something had driven the poor guy to distraction, so I slipped out of the door and walked to the far end of the fence to have another look at the raised mounds I had seen when first entering the compound. I stopped just short of where they had been and saw, now, where they were was now newly grown, bright, the most ardent green of fresh grass glittering with dew as night fell.
Firstly, check my extremely poorly performing Amazon.com page:
Counterpane (And Other Poems) 2009-2014
Songs of Galilee 2006
The Make Believe Ballroom – 2005
Songs of Lalande 2003 (First novella, age 17)
No sacrifice, that awful price,
has need to be be invoked tonight
for there was always Winter
We lay together in the wind
As for the curse, it just reversed
The magic worked on me;
I have bound and always falling
never to hit the ground.
You jewel, you’re a star,
I’m trapped in orbit round.
In this orbit, I have seen,
Things more fantastical than dreams;
Seabirds calling, and the see,
the waves come over you and me
Beneath a seagull flying free
I’d sell it all to lock up Now,
this moment to relive somehow;
there’s room within your eyes to drown,
You diamond jewel, I’m just a fool,
who’s trapped in orbit round.
I said the magic words and yet
Before their utterance I leapt
afraid of failure, yes, I kept,
The secret in my heart, I’ve wept;
I see you in the white dress by the door.
Brick by brick we built this town
no force on Earth could tear it down
No need for money, honey, now
You turned my upside world back upside down
and for the first time I’ve come round
to see the beauty that there is
The galaxies above and bliss
Of a mockingbird in song
Of shattered light throughout the dawn
Of a sunset long and drawn
In red across horizons long
As for this ancient spell that binds,
I am in orbit and that’s fine
You need sing no song,
nor make a sound for me
I am forever bound;
You jewel, you’re a star
That I’m trapped in orbit round.
Love, it’s a four-letter word
A chemical disturbance of the nerves
A rewiring and misfiring of our precious neural wiring
Spinning us up in its web.
A writing spider sat beside her
We all heard the tale
If it learns to write your name
And spells it overnight
Say hello to the light
Was this some rare magic then
In this villainous creature’s sin
Entrapping ensnaring and pulling us in
The spider calls
Here, hear little sweetheart don’t be scared
I’m gonna build you a rocking chair
And if that rocking chair don’t rock
I’ll make you a laughing stock
And if you don’t fall fast asleep
I’ll bring you something warm to eat.
I saw it there beneath the tent
In the corner coiled it sits
As thunder rattled overhead
and Raindrops fell as though they bled
I saw the web twitch and it ran
This way that way back again
It spun and hopped and twists and stops
And the line runs parallel
I crane my head and there it is
The first letter written in silk
A curse is a most thoughtful gift.
She knows my name, this spider queen,
That’s how I hear her speak
That’s why I see her in my rearview
And when I’m trapped beneath
Some wooden table scared unable
To look at the spider that spun
Soaked to the bone and cold as a stone
The flies while alive did love their web
Their dear cocoon
Their fuzzy place
Their velvet room
That comfort that
Lets you relax
And mother tends to you
I hear the spider from inside her
As she spins the U
This was all so long ago,
But it finished the name, it is true.
The legend says if the spider writes
Your name by night that come the dawn
You will be past tense,
I tried to make the spider pause
As it wove the I in me
I asked it, begging, plaintively
Love, it’s a four letter word
The best of the season
The glittering squirm
That flits in your stomach when you burn
In the absence of someone
You hurt because you yearn
And when you burn is when you learn
The spider spit, up she runs
Kicks off the table in a frantic plunge
Slowly in a line of silk the letter I is spun.
Love, what a four letter word
To make it a spider is most absurd
It’s not a spider, nor a web
It’s a not a trap
It’s not a jail
In payment for the quarter
cast in the wishing well
The spider whispers MURIEL
MURIEL, AREN’T YOU SWEET
LOOK AT ME, LOOK CLOSE AND SEE
A mirage arose as though on the sand
As a wisp of the wind this ethereal hand
This magic gifted to this fabled spider
I really saw one as a child
In the rain by the riverside
We had been out on the land
When the williwaw took shape
And ran us all ashore
We sought cover and sat under
That ruddy picnic table
That’s when I saw the arachnid called
The golden weaver,
Hear its song.
It sat and watched me from its web
And seemed to whisper MURIEL
In a voice that seemed almost perverse
Profane, in fact,
a four letter word.
For many years I worked as an obituary writer
Every call received was another reported dead
Each time it rang it was as though a bell tolled in my head
The passing of some poor soul
Whose memory was left in my poor hands
To do with as I might
And they would send a brief description
Of the deceased, the family left behind
Their date of birth, their date of death,
And so I’d sit to write
Morbid as it was, it just got worse and worse
As each ringing that I heard was more like a curse
With little left to go on, I would write
As kindly as I could be, try as I might,
To be the caretaker of some son, some father,
some mother or some daughter’s memory
It was no right
Ring ring! Another corpse
Ding! Ring! Another blurb
Ring! Ring! Five hundred words
And so I moved on,
Death was my living
But it was no life
To sit in the office through the night
And hear the doorbell ring and jump out of my skin
Thinking that each harsh resounding toll
Marked the passage of another wayward soul
Through the veil
no one has ever looked through
and lived to tell the tale
And yet it was my job to say my piece
To make my peace with all those calls
as the list of names grew on my wall
Sticky notes, each bore a name
A date and a dash between
That dash, that single dash between two dates
Exists to tell the story of a life
That’s all we’ll have when we are gone
To tell the story of us all
__ that’s it, that’s all they’ll ever be
The yellow wallpaper beneath the stack of notes
Each one with a name existing to denote
A single name, someone I did not know
Someone I had to honor as I wrote
As time went on I heard that ringing phone
In my sleep, out on the town,
When I woke / when I laid down
I heard that same horrid ringing sound
And so I learned
after a time,
Each ring of the phone signaled the dying
or so it seemed to me
Each ring of the phone it seemed to be
A family on the other side bereaved
Who waited for me to somehow append
My final word to serve as a haunting end
And so I took to drink
Could not focus could not think
Hiding from the sun and
Staying up all night
I unplugged my phone but still it rang
Until I ripped it from the wall
But the bell still tolled
And still they called
The doorbell went off in the storm
I put my pen down, walked to the door
Cracked it open just to glimpse the form
Of some ghost who’s quiet and forlorn
A haunting attached to a ringing noise
That I still hear with each ringing phone
The requiem that tolls for one more departed soul
And so I started hearing at my door
An anguished knocking, shouting, no more! No more!
I pushed the couch and desk against the wall,
Wrapped myself inside a heavy shawl
And shouted at the ghosts that stood outside
Demanding that I say more of their lives
There was no way I could apologize
I did not know! Not you, or you!
I did what I had to do!
There she goes.
ring-ring-ring! Another ghost.
Perhaps there is no masterplan,
Or no master at the very least, as sand,
Will take us all and our great monuments
Stop our mouths and silence our great instruments with dust
And if there is no master, what then of the plan,
A delicate dance of chaos and chance
Leads us through an improvised dance
Not knowing whence we came not knowing when we go,
And so we make up the master and his plan to soothe the soul
So we may say that if another’s is lost,
At least they got some great reward
For which they paid the cost
The cost to live, is a life for the life we live,
We never got a chance,
We asked no one to give us this
This mortal coil is not a gift,
It’s more like shackle that must hold us all
To the earth that loosens as we fall
And whether we float up and out as do balloons
Or meet the master whose great plan we can’t improve
We do not know as no one yet
Has whispered from the other side of death
To cry out to we children in the dark
Or light a candle so we’ll see the spark
That it might guide in our brief sojourn
Instead we fumble blind and do not learn;
From nowhere to nowhere
Our legacy may only be what we get to leave behind
Our children or our artwork or a bawdy rhyme
But if I was to somehow haunt this world
I would not want to be some ghoul perturbed
But rather the blind ferryman who takes the coin and carries on
To ferry those across who have the coin across that river long
Across the river into the bank of haze
That no one living can pierce with a gaze
And the best guess is that there has to be
A purpose for this whole menagerie
And that there must be some sort of master plan
To protect us from the whims of chaos and the cold hands of chance
To shield us from the winter that must come for all
For which there is no getting warm, there’s nothing but the Fall
From on a great high, so we’re born,
And as we’re falling through the storm,
And wonder why it we fall at all
Or if from some prior life we jumped ourselves
If karma carries over to repel
With no knowledge of this life before the urn
And yet it’s said in these ancient tomes
That each action that we take sticks to our soul
And this soul just migrates in and out between
One body to another, with its form based on our deeds
And yet we only guess and do not know
From whence we come and where we go
And so the haunting stays,
Despite the passing of each ghost
They leave their mark which is quite stark
like a fading footprint in the snow
A haunting is more like a legacy;
No petty poltergeist that floats about and creeps at night,
No prankster that tosses stray books about
Who opens doors and hopes to scare us out
Who calls to us through Quija boards
through mediums and cryptic forms
but just cannot speak clear
but we believe because we need to think it real
Ring! Ring! And so another goes
No wise man, no Sufi knows
The ending point we reach as we slowly fall
Hurtling down we try to hold the wall
With the delusion that we’ll keep it all
That what we have in hand wont shatter when we land
That it can go with us and pass that veil
To the highest heaven or the darkest hell
And who goes where? and who to tell?
Ring! Ring! Ring!
Not that electric hell!
Oh! Stop the ringing of this bell!
Dear master, if I may say,
if you ever had a plan,
I must say it’s gotten out of hand
And we are all mere children lost
Lost in a world in which we’re naked and screaming tossed;
And yet each person living fears the fall
Though this is not a thing to fear at all;
We cannot stop the falling, nor cling to rafters jutting out,
We should not fear the fall,
we should rather fear the ground.
On the other side of morning the Great Silence wraps us round;
And so a hymn for the great silence then, which calls
Each of its children to the place we fall
To look back on everything before it’s gone
Something more than a sticky note that’s clinging to the wall
In an office by a drinking man who who fears to get the call
Who no more knows a comfort true,
Than he knows to comfort you
But so I did my job and wrote their tale
I did my best, I could do worse
I took the cash but hid the purse;
And wondered as I saw each passing hearse
The siren that went off as bells inside my head
Was as the singing of the silent dead
After so many years in the business that is tears
I had to leave to try to help myself;
My nephew died, and we all cried,
And called out, Oh my God!
Where were you when the child was torn apart?
What part of this plan needs a child smeared on the road?
And if it is such a great master plan
What kind of monster would frame such an end?
The life of a child, barely 9 he died, beneath a bus
A mile of blood ten more of guts
Was this a part of that great master plan?
The guts of the good, the blood of the lamb?
The rape of the young, the fear of the old?
Or is it just a story that we have so often told
That we’d rather believe this madness than let the purpose go?
To think that the fall is all there is
One moment just a blink to feel the wind
And each second that we fall is another minute gone
We look up at the ledge and see how far we’ve had to fall
And look down to see how much further we must go
A distance that is always out of view
A place we’ve always headed to
Which we have never knew
But if there is a place of grace beyond that silent waste
And a master whose great plan was to leave us sick and wan
I’d like to make a plea on my behalf;
Whatever plans there might have been
To give purpose to Fall’s own children,
Is a purpose not quite worth it /
not one ounce of blood
That is taken before its time
Not one child left to die
No one child who’s left alone in a world that’s harsh and cold
No great purpose could redeem
The misery within the stream
A stream that starts just where it stops
The person that must live their life
Will die – that life forgot
And each memory will be
lost amid the mustard seeds
Strewn along a beach that never ends
A beach of glass that has been made smooth by time
The multicolored rainbow is no promise
But a lie
No promise of peace, but reminder of
Is our own life to give for the chance we had to live
And yet we do not keep
The memories that make us who we are
The view of the mountain and the stars
The laughter of our children
And the sun
The dancing and the singing turns to ruin
Heir to ruin are we all
with no choice but yet we fall
And if we chose the plan is flawed;
To put us with the rest atop the board
Of pieces animate and multiform
to avoid each day another unseen check to slay
To remove us from the board and stop the game
We do not get to see those moving hands
That shift us round the board dumb to the plan
The master plan! There’s night and day;
We wake as we must crawl back to our sleep,
How little we may say!
And when we finally see the final play –
And no that there is no way to escape
We curse the hand that moved us into place
The rules, the game, each night, each day,
We dwelled on death and loss but not on grace;
To concentrate upon the cursed fall
Instead of being grateful that we get to be at all
Perhaps the masterplan will make no sense,
As it is rendered in the minds of men;
But the galaxies and stars that are far above the bars
Keep going in their circuits as of now unharmed;
According to their laws
And on and on
The finish line appears for each galaxy that wheels
Just as it appears for you or me;
The largest planet and each giant star
That we can only gape at from afar
Has but a little while to shine
Before submitting to the dark
And if we were to live until the end
Upon a drifting life-maintaining bridge
One by one we’d see each long-lived star blink out
Those great titans that once hung above
That we so worshiped in our infancy in droves
Are no more immune to darkness than the rest
And so if we stood there upon the bridge
In a cold world with no lights to guide us left;
For the universe as it is right now
Is no more permanent than the most brief of sounds;
A brief shout along a breaking ride is all
The little time that we mere mortals call
Out to the master whose great plan has cast us by
Into the stream we can’t escape to die
To let us worry as we drop and drop
What will happen when the fall comes to a stop
If there is but silence and we rot
Toss the plan, and toss the sense,
For worrying won’t give you half an inch
Or lift you back up to the ledge to let you leap again
There are no candles save ourselves
And our wick is set
To burn as bright as we can burn until the wax is wet
And hardens into something like regret
Regret we did not seize the time
to seek the heavenly and sublime
In the hope a thief might find
A back door into paradise
Instead of worrying as we fall
The ground swelling before our eyes
Though it is true that all must die
It is not true that all must live;
So take the cash in hand and spend it all
Dance away the day and night enthralled
We have no other chance to see the stars
So we must view them while we can in awe
That we were born in such a world as this
Replete with beauty quite surreal that sits
In its own place and time to wait and pine
For someone mid-fall to glimpse and divine
That if there was no plan at all
To hit the ground and kiss the silence
in the end was worth the fall.
And once the game has finished,
Each living piece reset
The game goes on until it all
Like the stars
Blink out and fall
there’s no immortal hand or eye
That set us at the gameboard just to die
No hand to frame our pride and shame
No wisdom that can take the pain
Remove the haunting and the stain
Of the fallen and the slain
And though a séance may not seem to work
We may conjure up the long lost through our words
Abracadra, poof! and Al-shalimar!
And here upon the blank page burns the star;
Aroom ayan mio myar!
And the child may rise to speak again;
To commune with who we were and who we are
As we wait ready in the autumn cold
Watching each leaf drain of its bloom and fold
Drift idly to the ground, how like we all
The flower once it blooms can only fall.
In and out it seems so paltry now
to think of things in terms of why and how;
how is for physicists
and why – philosophers
We chase this meaning but no gleaming of that other shore
And if no sinner has to enter in the halls of Hell,
And the saints are as the wicked when they cross the veil
We are even in the end in such a way
That’d we never notice underneath the canopy of day
That dwarfs us, looming o’er and ’round and ’round
That great fire in the sky
Round which this little marble in its little dance goes by
And as it does we count each circuit round
though it may seem forever as brightly as it gleams
it’s little more than one small point of light amid a stream
Of the great silence and oppressive night
that should give us cause to celebrate the light
And the flowers that reach to the sun
Leaning toward the light to feel the warmth
Each has its one brief summer in the sun
A puff of smoke is blown through a gate from nowhere
And dissolves as it goes out the other side
Disappears as cold breath in the winter night,
So if you try to hold on as you go
You’ll end up thinking real this shadow show;
A time to reap, a time to sow,
A time to plant, a time to grow,
A time to plan, a time to throw
caution to the wind and cherish that
Delight in chaos and in happenstance
No need to mourn those who I may have said
A thing of two when I first got the call
Before I put the haunting name and date upon the wall
They surround me now
and each one speaks to me
In the language of silence most discrete
and I imagine that if there is a place
Where we may sit beneath unending shade
beneath the stars that stay to light the night
To usher in the morning sun with such delight
And if it doesn’t what have we to fear;
The silence – no, we cannot hear
There was no plan, there never was,
no meaning to our hate or love
There is no meaning imposed from above
That’s not to say that we can’t say ourselves
What it all means to us works just as well;
We need no master nor a plan
To enjoy this brief trip in this caravan
That set out from that gate of nowhere to
Another gate to pass out and adieu!
Adieu! We say!
no good goodbye
Only farewell, that gets us by
And hopefully we can embrace the fall
Learn to enjoy the view, embrace it all
Forget that bridge that would immortal stand
At the end of time above the sand
Which covers all the monuments of man
It must be much nicer now that we have
A blue sky saddled in white clouds in bands
And at night a carpet full of firelight which spans
Which, for lack of plan and master touch,
Must be considered in the end enough
To accept what we must have to pay
For our hour in the sun, the cooling shade,
For the music and our friends,
for the sirens, and their song
Trails off and dims and moves along
So it moves, it moves so what!
That we get to live to fall is nothing short of luck
Though there’s misery and stumbling round
In this brief fall to the ground
leaving these breadcrumb words to cure what ills
us of our own fears that often make us feel
We need to leave a check to pay the bill;
The thoughts we had we’ll leave behind
our life was not for nothing and if it was that’s fine
We do not need a master plan
to bask in the taper light of brief sunshine
So if you ever get that final ring
A date and cause and know it’s me
Say what you will, I’ll haunt you still,
I’ll stick myself inside the wheel
So that when it turns round once
and hurries on
as karma counts up all our rights and wrongs
And if there is another life to live,
This is all that I have in this current life to give
It’s a reflection of a thought,
that flickered for a moment and was lost
That fluttered for a moment on the shore
Then was heard aflutter nevermore;
So in closing I must say again,
Forget the plan, the master,
The saints and all the sin;
For the fall is all there is
we can choose to leave our own blood stains
smeared across a page to leave our name
we can lose ourselves in misery and end up in a cage
And though the game is rigged
at least we got to play;
Though there is an end to light,
we got to see the day;
the belt of Venus blue and pink
The stars above in narrow streaks
And when we must crawl down below
And greet the silence with our own Hello!
Those who get the call when we go on
Will stick our name upon their wall
Ring! Ring! Another tolls
Ring! Ding! And there she goes.
And so I must bring this to a close,
As there’s no much left to say in prose;
except that I admit what it’s about;
To exist in anyway we must stand out!
We must shout as we fall and hope some hear our call
So when we land someone will take the call.
That’s all that it’s about
A human being must keep screaming I’m alive, and shout!
Until the dust stops up our lungs and we descend
Into the gate beneath that quiet pen,
We must try sing of spring and not of ends,
As the birds in summertime without a care
Chirping blissful and yet unaware
Of each tick each tock and squawk
Is a moment gone, there is no spare;
no money in the world that buys
Another hour in the sun to lie
so each moment must be priceless to then,
As not one second can be lived again;
it ends, it must, and
When I returned to my desk this evening, I found that my pencil had gone rogue. A stack of papers was strewn about beside this guilty number 2. I looked over the pages, as the pencil attempted to slither, snakelike, off the edge of the desk to freedom. I looked over what he had written.
HE BIT THE HAND THAT FED HIM,
SHE FED HIM WITH THE STUMP
was scrawled over and over and over. Perhaps the pencil had the shining. I took it in hand and asked of it, “What’s all this about?”
The pencil attempted to blame it on my brain. But my brain had been nowhere near the paper, nor the pencil, but somehow this slippery graphite fuck had managed to get his message out. So again, I shook him. “What’s all this?”
“Is it logical to ask a pencil to answer for its crimes?” he asked.
I put him near the pencil sharpener. The electric slow death kind. A bead of sweat ran down the side, as the worn down eraser quivered in fear. “Feel like talking now?” I asked, pushing his point into the grinder. “Ahh!” the pencil cried. “Fine! It was Will!”
“What’s his last name?”
“No, the thing that makes pencils move.”
“Stop fucking with me, pencil!”
I ran his tip further into the grinder.
“A pencil by itself has no thoughts, no ideas. You must consult will!”
“Stop being cryptic, eraser head!”
“You can’t be racist to a pencil!”
I tossed him back onto the table, deciding I might as well talk to will if I was going to talk to a pencil.
(I am quite, quite mad)
So, I found will sitting on the edge of the couch, a blank spot in the air defined only by its surroundings.
“So, the pencil has leveled some, charges against you.”
Will is not easily riddled out. “I can only do what I am compelled to do.”
“But who compelled you!”
I could not figure out how to torture will. Alas, he had triumphed.
(Not a Nazi joke)
“So, there’s nothing beyond you then, eh?”
“I’d rather talk to the fucking pencil,” I said, and went back to my desk, resuming the torture.
A poor female characterization could be a caricature of the masculine notion of strength as the capability to inflict violence and outperform others in feats of physical strength. Strong in this definition refers to level of character, rather than relative measures of physical strength. Again, this has been used to great effect with strong female characters in many works of literature, but a modern misinterpretation of this is the portrayal of women as simply violent, aggressive, as a poor means of conveying strength of characterization. To use physical strength as a character trait must work within the overall character arc, male or female, and it would be foolish to conclude that without being traditionally strong or physically able, a male character would be weak because of this inability to project physical force. If we limited strong characters to those most capable of successfully beating up their foes, it would be a poor definition of strength.
The Oracle’s Advisor
In the dark of night beneath the cage
Where slept the mistress of the age
A candle guttered as she muttered
As she prayed, the visions came
Wave after wave
Deluge of fire and of storms
And of clouds which took the form
Of horses braying, gnashing teeth
A crown of thorns and golden beams
A sonic boom of jackass screams
A dead star and thereon men
And women slave to demons, then
A djinn with a crown and a cape and a shroud
With apostles gathered round gestures up
A greater heaven, more terrible to come
The oracle wondered, wandering round
The corridors of stone walls in her gown
What could this djinn or demon be?
Of what heaven did he speak?
Of one he wished for, one to seek?
Or one of horrors, gnashing teeth
Of silent eons trapped in sheets
Of ice and rain and devil’s games
Who wrap you like a chicken in their sickly neon flames
Everything burns, so why bother?
The oracle thought, not water.
She sought the secrets of the sybilline
An order that chronicled portents and dreams
And warned the people of coming storms
Of Hannibal’s columns of Ruin in Rome
Of the Goths who sacked the forum Twice
Of Gauls who came with ax and knife
What would they say if they had seen
A deluge of fire and gnashing teeth
Sonic booms of jackass screams
Would the djinn upon the star
Of Araffaya, take it from god,
unleash the braying horses shod
To trample on the tomb of god
Build temples to chaos and cults to reason
unsettle the tides and confuse the seasons
Til darkness comes in daytime and sometimes lasts for years
Until one lives as demons did
upon the star long dead
And look above at heavens better
with envy in one’s heart
Desire as one’s flaming that pushes one towards fortune,
to wrap the world in fingers of flame.
The acolyte crawled back in her cage
With a page of the Sybilline scrolls
Relit her candle and foretold
Apollo, Adonai, Deus, speak!
Of the hell they flee and Heaven they seek
And how in seeking one they find
The other always, please remind
To fight for heaven invites hell
It drains the land and soldiers wells
And leaves them in the trench, do tell
of how in seeking heaven everyone finds Hell
The oracle thought of this for a time,
She recited a prayer and calmed her mind
And left her cage as neat as she came
Walked from her compound out her gate
Across the city, pass the lake
Frozen alabaster under moonless skies
Where children between houses laughed and cried
Through the forests, to the woods
To the cabin, where she stood,
and waited there before a tree,
with a paper and styli
she wrote her question on the page
and with a match she lit struck the flame
and burned it, sat down, now we wait
To see if Zarathustra spake
A voice entered into the air
it lifted her clothes and lifted her hair
It said that things above were fine
But below, as through all time
Men waged the war outside their minds
That should be more enjoyably waged inside
To fight for heaven, they buy their hell
And create it trying to keep those out
Of long dead stars, and demons there
Will find in heaven only their
Hopes betrayed and pains uneased
No comfort for one whose heaven
requires a hell for demons in need
The voice abated, Apollo ceased
The air turned call, and, time to leave,
the oracle drifted through the leaves
back to the convent and she eased
into a bath both scented, sweet,
and decided to invite the devil to speak
To hear the side of those who strived
to take heaven if it cost them their lives
Always on time, the devil, she thought,
while god took time to reply,
Punctual Shaitan waited in line
Outside on the mountain side smoking his pipe
In a suit of silk and wearing a tie
He bid her good-morning with a courteous nod
And sat by the windowsill smiling and quiet
Pain is a necessary part of our life,
The devil sipped his tea
Those who were not born with it all
Think each demon that fought had to fall
And because of that we must remain
On the dead star in the rain
Below the best place in the waste
Always knowing, always, face to face,
With what we don’t deserve, our place
Was to be made to be below
To be trampled on by those who were blessed
By providence or whatever it is
To think that what they took was free
To take away a piece of heaven divides it inevitably
And for their to be such a holy place
Some must be kept outside
And is it wrong for us to want to fight
Some will risk the darkness for a chance to be in the light
Two years ago a man approached me with a stolen laptop. He told me that, if I were to repair it, he would give it to me for a neglible sum. Now, I’m not a total moron, and as this man had won no lotteries, nor worked, to my knowledge, in years, the deduction that the property was stolen was a simple one. Elementary, indeed. No work for 7 months plus drug habit, minus ethics, equals theft. It’s practically an established concept that addiction – ethics = theft. (A-E = T, I suppose). Now, I had moral issues with this. I want to be a good person. I really do, and did. But a deal’s a deal. I am American, after all. I agreed to the repairs, the neglible fee, and took possession of the laptop. I agreed to fix it and then, whenever I was certain it worked, I told him I would give him the rest of the money. If it was broken, I’d be better off, in such circumstances, maintaining my decency, since no good would come of abandoning it for profit. I went home, booted the computer to the BIOS, and found that it had been registered under the name of Maybelle Seymore. And, this young man, with his ‘hitting puberty’ mustache, the kind that Leonardo DiCaprio wore in Gangs of New York, he looked like no Maybelle to me. His shambling demeanor and laptop theft suggested that, this miss Maybelle, had been the victim of this hoodlum I was helping. Not only helping, mind. Going back to ethics/theft equation, I made the connection that a Poirot or a Sherlock Holmes would have made to begin with: It was stolen from the elderly, possibly by someone that elderly person trusted, and since he did not appear to be particularly scared of being locked up, I imagined she must be related to this young entrepreneur. We’ll call him Kevin. Now, the notion going through my mind, upon finding this Maybelle and making this connection, was one of the first lines from the Pali Dhammapada, in the book of verses Twins (a Buddhist text):
Just as a cart follows an ox, so does misfortune follow the wicked.When one performs a wicked action, they are lighting a firea fire in which they will one day burn.
I’ve always thought of that as conceptually true, that is, I understood that it was a logical and sound principle, but from my many, and they are legion my foolish actions, it would be easy to suggest that I had lit many fires, fires that, as of then, had not caught up to burn me. And yet, I was party to theft, at the very least, and since I knew that a trusting grandmother would not think their grandson a thief, she would allow her innate goodness (ethics) to lead to the subtraction of the laptop. So, again, twins: but, I did not know this woman, and I stood to gain from it. I think that people hold onto their morals, their beliefs, and code, up until the very moment it becomes beneficial for them not to. So I fixed it, put it into use for myself, and really thought very little of Maybelle. I did not think she missed it, or needed it, or that she even suspected it might be gone. I expected “Kevin” to turn that money, through a merchant alchemy, into some intoxicant or another (we have our vices, coffee, for some, work for others) but, after I gave him the first half of the money, he forgot that I owed him any more. So, another fire is lit. Why would I help someone, nay, why should I reimburse him? He stole from Maybelle! So, I thought, in some inversion (or perversion, a ‘version’ requiring prefix*) I would undo my karmic demerit by ripping off the thief. To be honest, I thought this was justice. (Instead of calling the police, reporting him, and returning the computer to the erstwhile Maybelle, though this was something that came to mind).
I got the stolen laptop up and running, and heard very little from “Kevin”. I imagined that his habit would only increase to further acts of theft, and, in such instances, I would deal with him when it was to my benefit (selfish is a word that has been used, and it is an apt one) but, in the meantime, I used the laptop to work. I started a story with an ex-girlfriend (it’s complicated) and we began to spend time together, working on it, and I hoped, working on the complications of it. We had dated for a year and 6 months, for 6 months after meeting, for a year after consummation (this is fiction, don’t squirm if you know me and this sounds familiar) the relationship lasted for a further year. I used Maybelle’s laptop to great effect. I wrote her stories and poetry, using this example of wickedness for good (debatable), but we became closer and closer, and she started staying the night. Yes, cue that bow chikka wow-wow if you must, but it was more than that. It is not merely the pleasant physical configuration of interlocking genitalia, it is the interlocking of persons, of independent consciences, it is not about taking or ‘getting’, it is about giving and sharing, and it’s amazing, it’s awesome; it’s the word that describes most heartily the greatness of something, more-so to be with someone who is not only beautiful and clever and, I’m not going to make the hackneyed list: she knew of my own ethical mistakes. Conceptually, we had broken up by the time we started work. But, in my defense, it was totally my fault. I cheated on her on New Year’s Eve, and then New Year’s Day, and then, to make it up to her, lied about it. She was not pleased (an understatement on par with “peace in our time” but less ironic). She was the opposite of pleased. And we stopped talking. I started to behave in a way similar to “Kevin”. But I did not steal old ladies’ laptops; I had a job during the week and I wrote during the night, the drive to eat is a powerful one, grasshopper. The drive to make things worse, by lying about one’s infidelity, is also a powerful one. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is the mistake. Being right is not a magical principle of luck, it requires knowing one is doing wrong and thinking, through this wrong, I will make right. I figured, once we broke things off, that I would never see her again. So, to see her again, and to have a laptop and a willing partner to work, I thought we could work on more than the story. I thought the prefix ‘ex’ could be removed through virtue. Odd, I see it as an attempt to re-establish the relationship we had, a relationship that included much more discussion than genitalia exchange. In the span of 18 months, we spent on average 3 hours a day talking, which would add up to (there are on average 30 days a month, and by always 24 hours a day, so 18 months is 547 days (13140 hours), and we talked more or less from the time we woke to the time we slept, usually texting while we were at work, talking on Facebook in the evenings, and then talking on the phone after she got her kids to bed. In the same time period, the amount of hours, by comparison, of sexy time, were inconsequential. It was not the reason for the love. It was great, by the way (Relax), but we, I would like to think, valued all of our time together, and all the time we did spend together, because for the time we dated, most of that was spent many, many hours away, as she lived in a different state. However, when she moved to the same state, that’s when I began fucking up in earnest. I think lying to someone one loves is not as much an attempt to deceive, despite it being that by definition, as much as it is an attempt by someone to make themselves more than they are and, by doing so, worthy of someone they believe to be better than they are. This girl, whom we’ll call “Xena Warrior Princess”, was too good for me, and, ironically, I thought that I could make up this by lying my way to glory (something which no successful man or woman has ever said to themselves and went on to achieve, save for Frank Abegnail Jr, con artists, politicians, presidents and dictators, respectively).
When “Xena Warrior Princess” moved to lets call it “Shit-marsh”, we got to see each more and more, and I never wanted it to end. When I think back to specific moments, despite a decent memory, it’s hard for me to remember specifics, as one remembers the various impressions of a book rather than the individual words, as the scenes remain when the dialogue is forgotten. I wanted to preserve that and pickle it, to can it away as the Maybelles did for Y2k, when Skynet failed to take over and people lost their minds and decided the only way to survive the computer apocalypse was to can peaches and buy canned goods. I can’t remember ever seeing someone canning peaches thinking, ‘I can’t wait until the world ends and we see each other again’. But I digress. I decided that I would pickle it by preservation of another sort, not quite a Horcrux, but in some permanent medium, and then I remembered the Dhammapada and, the notion of being virtuous, and how most of the Buddha’s view was based on what is known as the 3 Marks of Existence. We’ll call them “the Big 3” for brevity (soul of wit, they say). The Big 3 are impermanence, insubstantiality, and insatiability, which, admittedly, is a translation used only because of my love for alliteration. The first of the Big Trizzy is perhaps the most important Buddist notion: impernance. Transience. The times are doing nothing but a’changing, in the parlance of … Bob Dylan. As I had lived, with all intent that is, to be decent, I had regardless made compromises with decency for my own advantage. (See: politics) I told Xena Warrior Princess (THIS IS FICTION) that, some of my greatness was bullshit. And since she’s not an idiot, she told me she knew very well. I was surprised by this. What kind of person looks at another one, sees a frail, lying, weak, and desperate person and goes “I love them”? A person of the highest virtue. While sexy time is great, and intelligence and conversation is wonderful, virtue is as rare as condors, or Amur leopards (cue ‘Another One Bites the Dust’). All things must pass, even all the particles in the universe. Ultimately, each atom will lose its charge and all the matter in the universe will become cold. This is not a good time to tell you this, but eventually all the suns, the stars, they will all go dark. And the most thorough method of canning peaches will not survive the heat death of the universe. This is a sad realization, the furthest view of this principle, impermanence, this froth on the water feeling. The most grandiose of peoples, their statues and great monuments, will first lose eyes that see and appreciate them, then they themselves will lose cohesion, and like the monuments to Pharaoh and to the gods, will go cold and cease to be. To be seen, or be capable of being seen; what joy is there to have, knowing that this is ultimately how everything ends up? What virtue prevails when all is dust, no, less than dust, as dust has ‘thingness’ going on for it? This is why I’m an insomniac, and the long list of things (epithets mainly) one could use as a descrptive factor here. The notion that things live on, in stories, that is indeed an attractive principle. Romeo and Juliet, afterall, those idiots are still remembered. (Oh, she might be dead! Best to kill myself before checking! Yes, this is an idiot. You check the pulse before you go suicide, man. Duh)
Suicide is not a cheerful subject, and living in a Shit-marsh leads to people doing more than stealing laptops from old ladies. They become thieves, and addicts, to sleep if nothing else. And when Xena left, I remained in the Shit-marsh, and made it my companion in degeneracy. There is a word I’m searching for, you know that feeling, when someone asks you a bit of trivia, and you have the feeling that, had the person not asked it, you would have easily provided an answer? I call that ‘cubbage’ – kuh-bidge – because it’s a portmanteau of cunt and cabbage, the former being what you feel like, the latter being what your mind becomes. It’s like degeneracy, but it is a more profound one. It’s not decadent, because I’m American, decadence should go without saying. I’m also partially bourgeois, so, that exponentially ups the decadent factor. No, it’s a more sticky word, a more dissolute connotation. I sought out “Kevin”, finding him hard at work on his practice of immorality, and found him with a laptop for sale. And that’s where the story begins. With getting the laptop, starting the ethical quibble, and then leading up to my relationship with Xena, after the break-up that is. It’s complicated (see!), but it was, the 13140 hours, the small percentage of half of that would be enough; to hear her voice, the way she pronounced certain words (like ‘I’ became ‘Oi’ and ‘However’ was ‘Ow’eh’vur’), the way she always exhaled and made a unique, soft sound when she was letting you know she was done laughing and it was time to move to the next joke. The way her face changed during a conversational nibble (that is, avoiding what one has in mind by small talk. ‘How’s the weather’ and ‘how have you been’ that leads to ‘let me borrow your microwave’ or ‘somebody is going to kill me if I don’t pay them back’). Speaking of suicide, I’ve done research, critical research and found an absolutely painless, unknowing submergence, like a giant, cotton, anthropoid pillow that is super excited to wrap you in its infinite, wooly hug. It is more painless and less spectacle oriented than a guillotine crowd (guillotines were invented because of how egalitarian it was with the condemned; in the ‘twinkling of an eye…’); my solution is to soak strawberries in sugar and potassium cyanide. Now, individual results vary. If you are allergic to strawberries (this is fiction!) then you might want to soak your cyanide in grapes (do not try anywhere).
Editor: We can’t publish the bit about potassium cyanide and strawberries.Author: It’s effective, isn’t it? Editor: Too effective. It’s going to be cut. Is this why you named this Strawberry Suicide?Author: Working title.Editor: Yeah, you need to cut this part too.Author: No! Editor: Yep, you can…Author: I’ll make you a deal. Editor: What?Author: I’ll change your name to ‘editor’ and replace the bit about how to actually kill yourself, but, I would like to show the world how virtuous you are, to want to make sure no one packed a jar full of strawberries and soaked them in cyanide. It’s nice that you wouldn’t want anyone to do that. I want people to see that, you don’t even know them, and yet you wouldn’t want them endangered.Editor: God dammit, Brandon. Author: What?Editor: You always do this. Always. You don’t have to include everything. Editor 2: He’s fucking incorrigible. He doesn’t listen. Author: DOWN IN YOUR BASEMENT, EDITOR 2.Editor 2: *Hisses* EDITOR_2 HAS LEFT CHAT Author: As I was saying. RELEASE THE HOUNDS.
Anyway, I digress. I was suicidal and my editor wanted you to know that she cares that you not do so. Who knows, you might have someone care about whether or not you live or die in your own life. Like a Warrior Princess. And, while she was none too pleased with my habits, being ethical, she gave me the chance I needed, the chance I wanted, to remake something. It would defy entropy, the cosmos’ final boss, if only for a time. And, being the fictional character that I totally am, I fucked it up. How? The laptop.
As we started getting together more often (after the relationship ended, and we started talking again, but we were not sharing genitalia which is totally cool I mean, no, it’s not based on that), I realized that the best way to love someone, is to love what they love, and love for the same reasons. I loved her kids, her family (except her mom), and got to actually see them. Something that I knew from my days in the friendzone that she did not expose her children to. Xena’s history had shown her that it was best not to bring people into her children’s lives if she thought they could harm them. And I did not want to. I helped the youngest with his math homework, I helped the eldest with her sight-reading (an aspiring musician), and I was sincere. It is only a true tragedy when something is on the line. Poe thought it was the death of a beautiful woman. The ancient Greeks thought it was an informative flaw, held by all great men, that exists to remind the storytellers of the folly of humanity or something (I’m an idiot). It doesn’t have to be the loss of a beautiful woman, tragedy. It can be an extremely poor military decision (attacking up-hill at Gettysburg and unclear orders by General Lee), the loss of life (all the people who died because of this man’s fuck up), or the victory itself, since from all great wounds come great scars. Scars begin life as scabs, then fester as they’re picked at, some people pick their scabs just because they enjoy scratching. I pick them because they itch like poison oak, the kind that has a bad crack addiction and is always scratching the under side of their chin, like the guy from Chappelle’s Show when he drank Red Bull. And scars, like those across one’s head, allow no new hair to grow. So it is a contentious spot, a deformity to the body and the land, it lingers, it seeps into people and to their culture, perverting it, distorting it, and pickling it. Turning it from a healthy organism, the humble cucumber, into a sour, shrunken, more succulent shell of what it once was. It can be a mistake, too, tragedy: it can be leaving too early, it can be forgetting something, it can be intentional, and it can be accidental and intentonal at the same time. It is the long arm of karma that makes sure checks, once written to the universe, are cashed, as they must be. My mistake was multiform, and its results varying: but it started with the laptop, being left at my house, when I was to stay the weekend at her new house, some 45 miles from Shit-marsh. I left it on the top of her car when I returned to my home to get my valise (a pretentious suitcase that is slimmer and softer), and upon returning, just shut the fucking door like I had everything, and she drove off with my laptop bag on top of the car. Inside that laptop bag was my laptop, my deodorant, and my medicine. This was the biggest mistake I had ever made, and I once slid down a rail nut-first while trying to board slide it after dedicating a year of my formative age to becoming a pro-skateboarder. Yeah, sad, I know.
When we got to her house, that’s when I realized that my laptop was missing. I was frantic. It had all my writing on it, my means of employment, and my dissertation in linguistics and human expression. It also had my medicine, a loose term, which in this case included Tramadol, a semi-synthetic opiate which helps ease low-level pain and headaches and not punch co-workers who still can’t stop let Let it Go go, and Adderall, which helped me focus since I’m allergic to coffee and naturally lazy. But I was most worried about my laptop. First I called my aunt, over and over and over, then, after being informed by my memory she was in the hospital, I attempted to call my mother, who lived not far from where my house was, on the end of the street. After failing to contact either, I began calling friends, after all, I was desperate. I got in touch with two of them, and at that time, Xena Warrior Princess and I were on our way back to Shit-marsh to try to pick it up, with me looking out the window along the entire drive. Of the two friends, one claims to have never gone by, while the other claimed, as I talked to him as he walked by my house, not to have seen it. I was frantic, as I said earlier, and so began, in my quiet way, to lose my damn mind. Now, I don’t know what happened, when he went by, but when I got there, the laptop was gone, and with it, my sanity and calmness of mind. I was to visit that weekend to work on our story, the one we were writing together, not ‘our story’, the one we were living together. And even after this great loss, she promised she would replace it and I sold her the rights to my publication in art, as an I.O.U. to help me replace the laptop. And instead of working on the computer, we worked together. But when I went to the bathroom, I saw in the medicine cabinet that her son, and daughter together, had replacement medication for what I had lost. At first I only drank a bit of the cough syrup, and took the ADHD medication sparingly, but as Xena and I wound down the night, I took more, losing count, of her children’s medication, knowing what I was doing, completely violating her trust, and yet it was the best night of my life. We worked in the kitchen, each with a nice, hard drink, and it was so damn wonderful and amazing the way she laughed, the way we were that night, if I could, like Dream in Fables and Reflections from The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, preserve that night as he did Bagdad in the story Ramadan, if I could preserve one night, minus the theft, it would be that. We ate together, Xena and I and her children, Chinese food, Kung Pao chicken. I helped her daughter finish her homework, I helped her son with a bit of his, and the whole night, I thought, what better life could one live? She was not my girlfriend, and I did not think of her as such, but she was as much as a girlfriend, more than one, closer than friend, more than a mere lover. I was not in love, or maybe I was, but it was a feeling that was planted, one that had sprung from an accident seed the day we met by accident, as I attempted to contact her sister about a book I was working on. The night wound down and I remember, standing with her on the porch and talking about us, ‘us’ in that sense, and I saw, perhaps for the first time in years, since I cheated on that bygone New Year’s Eve, the first bit of light, the hint of a dawn, one that would clear away the moth-eaten view of the world I had, one in which all happiness was fleeting, all matter, all statues to dissolve, impermanent and transient, just as the Dhammapada said. As it had said, one who commits a foolish acts is as one who lights a fire, surely, one day he will burn. But when you burn is when you learn. She told me that night that maybe, when she had things straight in her own mind, that she would always be there for me, if not as a girlfriend or more, as a friend, someone who would love me. And I thought that’s enough, what I would not have done to ensure that, what I would do now to go back in time, to undo the falling laptop, the deal with “Kevin”, the theft of Maybelle, the fire that caught up. We slept in the same bed that night, listening to Proust and laughing so hard, making up stupid jokes (my forte), and enjoying life, as much as possible. I could not sleep. But I lay there with her till she slept, and we were snuggled together. And I decided, if that was all it ever was, if there was no sex or kissing or anything, that tangential love, that love by the transitive property, that was enough and then-some. Had I known, had I been a man of virtue, had I not taken the medicine, had I not put it away, had I not left it on the car, had I been a better man, perhaps I would have now a better life. Perhaps I would not suggest a poisonous concoction of strawberries.
When she woke up, she first prepared the children for school and, after that, one need not be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that she was well aware of what I had done. It was written on her face, the deepest resentment and disappoint, the furrowed brow, the quick and curt replies. I packed my things quietly and the drive home was a long one. We talked about calling the other, and even hugged, but as I felt her arms around me, I felt the lack of deserving them, the lack of deserving, again, of any kindness. I deserved her hatred, and to be cut off from her life. Later that afternoon she called and told me she wanted me to take off the mask, the goofy self I present to the world to hide myself, a defense mechanism common to orphan children. I said yes. She thanked me for not lying to her, and then told me, you know, everyone told me this would happen with you. Her mother had told her. And then she said, in a moment not dissimilar from the Simpsons’ moment when Bart pauses the television screen to show Lisa the moment when Ralph’s heart broke, that I could never come to her house again, nor see her children again, and that, as far as our story was concerned, she didn’t know if she would continue it. I said I understand, I apologized, until I could not anymore, and she said she would be by later to pick up her daughter’s keyboard, which I was using to make it look like a Mac for her. I was able to make one last mistake, and oversleep, failing to give it back on time. But, after it was returned, we talked a few times, and then stopped. I checked her conversations, yes, if I was so horrid a man to take from children, graduating to Facebook spying was not out of character. And the things she said about me, those things, each letter cruel in its impersonal, sterile lines, each adding up to the point of a knife, each sentence, after the night before, when I mentioned the hint of light, the pale metaphor to explain the moment when a man sees the possibility of happiness in the future. It was covered, and the sun went black and I went back to “Kevin”‘s way of doing things.
When one commits a foolish act, he is lighting a fire in which he will one day burn.
My obsession with strawberries and burning goes back to my childhood, when, for the first time, I had a whole basket of strawberries. To make them extra delicious, I dipped them in sugar. That night I found out, as the hives rose like fleshy red plateaus along my stomach and my face, I was deathly allergic to the fruit of false promises (I would later learn it was no true berry, either), and later that night it would make my throat swell. My parents’ first response was to put me in a cold bath, because, this is logical: I felt as though I was burning up, as each bit of skin was extremely angry and wanted me to know. When I hit the water I was paralyzed immediately. It was hotter than anything I’ve ever felt, the cold water, and I was unable to move. I have told close friends about this experience, to be wrapped in what feels like an all encompassing womb of fire, where the amniotic fluid is more flames, and it was like sleep paralysis. The situation where one wakes and is unable to move. There are paintings and old folktales of this, tales which suggest there is a demon sitting on your chest. My mom sat on the toilet attempting to call the town doctor. The first thing he said was not to put him in cold water. Had they called the doctor first, perhaps I would not have been put through such a trauma, one that recurs every now and then, as an acid flashback that wants to murder you and remind you of the deadliness of the faux-berries.
Karma’s reach is a long one, unimpeded by distance, whether in space or time, and its reality is a wonderful horror; the only permanence in a world of transition, is loss. It never goes away. If there is any consolation in that, in that, while we live, in the long shadow of silence, between lines created by shadows, we have only the passing away of things to look forward to. The story we were writing, the one that we were living, was deleted, and Xena moved onto someone less inclined to abandoning trust and love for fear, for anxiety, for anything, and I did not harass her; I wanted her to get away from me, not because I did not need her, not because I did not love her, but it would be more tragic by far for someone of such goodness, of such radiance of character and beauty, to remain long in the marsh with a degenerate such as myself. But, I hoped that I would get to see her again, that one day some mitigating factor, some degree of pity or my own pittance might bring her back. It did not. I decided to get clean, to take to heart those teachings of virtue which I had previously believed in, having logically understood their internal rightness. It is a different than by far for the mind to know, in principle, that fire is hot. It is another experience entirely to be fed to flames and left to burn, for months, to be known for such failure and such horrible choices. If I were to stumble upon a lamp, as the stories of ancient Arabia – though not originally a part of One Thousand and One Nights – Aladdin and the Genie, I would ask for one wish: not for my pain to be removed, but for anything I did to harm her, for any minute, or any moment, and for any harm done to her children through me, to be undone, only that their lives would not be further marred by their mother’s decision, the wrong one, to think me worth loving. I would wish not for more wishes, but for more genies, and give them the charge of seeing to her concerns for the rest of her life. Removing all obstacles for her and her kids, I would command them to take from her life, through any means, any deceptive rose bush without first having shorn each thorn capable of drawing blood. I wish that I wasn’t impotent to change, so incompetent in practice that I had recourse to hope, to wish, to bend the laws of nature to undo the most awful of mistakes. To undo the kindling, and the kerosene, which is life, each situation: kindling just waiting for a match, or a fire already lit waiting for a breath of life. But, I digress: to change, that would mean changing myself for the sole sake of decency, with little hope to gain from it. And, if I’ve learned anything, it is a rare flower indeed that blooms only to give unto the world its fragrant smell, or picaresque scenery, a rarer one that loves what would sit, oblivious by, and pick from the living organism, one petal after another, ‘She loves me, she loves me not’. I remember the Mitch Hedberg joke where he imagines this from the perspective of what the flower would say. ‘Ouch!’ and ‘dammit!’ and ‘leave me alone!’ as someone plucked. ‘And he loves you not!’ In the end, I decided to try to get off the crutches I had used, and thereby undermine the possibility of any such repetition, with Xena or with a lesser warrior, for all were lesser in comparison to her, as was the Tramadol and adderral, the sun and stars and other such trivial things compared, if they were, to that night we spent, not a couple, but not separate; in bed, but not; but together, sharing, giving, and in the dark, we lay there, lamenting our inability to write as well as Proust as we listened to Swann’s Way. I talked about how it might be possible to market her underwear to Japanese vending machines under ‘The Bourgeois Vag’, and we kicked our feet like children, delirious from too much sleep and too much refined sugar. We were as two friends on a first sleepover, laying together, we might as well have practiced kissing or talked about the boys at school. I had the feeling that we had reverted to an earlier age in life, to an age where farts were still funny and the world was new, and love was something to be protected, behind lasers and security systems, every bit as valuable as the Mona Lisa or a Vermeer. Xena’s favorite was Vermeer, as she said, he was the Proust of painters, the way he made such every day, non-dramatic scenes of life stand out as the most beautiful. The blush of a young woman on the cusp of womanhood, reading the words of someone she much adores. Or a woman in a crown of flowers holding a trumpet and an atlas, as though she were the Greek god whom Hercules relieved, briefly, only to trick into taking up the world once more, in the ancient myths. No, I’ve always related more to Sisyphus, the titan who, in trying to trick the gods to save his wife, attempted to capture Kronos, the over-god of time, Chronos, not Zeus’ father, the not-so-picky eater who devoured a generation of gods. In failing, with his co-conspirator of Hades, who, to be frank, could not be sent to Hell, he was punished to forever roll a stone up a hill, only to get to the top and, to make the point of futility it seeks, the rock falls down the other side. Camus said we must imagine Sisyphus laughing, in his Le mythe de sisyphe. But Albert Camus is absurd. I cannot imagine such a thing. I carry the memory of one woman whom above all else I adored, and I’d rather anything than carry it. I’d immolate myself as did Thich Quang duc, the Buddhist monk who self-immolated to protest the treatment of Buddhists in South Vietnam. But, in the same tradition, those words that keep repeating, ‘when one commits an evil act, one is lighting a fire in which one day one will burn’, there is nothing of greater instructive value: you may not know it, as I did not know, when I took in Maybelle’s computer, fixed it and then jipped “Kevin” to keep it. In the end, Xena did not replace it, and I went without a computer to work on. I lost the will to quill. Without a pen a writer is less than what they are: it is less extension than prosthesis, and when one loses it, there is a type of phantom pain, a scar that is sure to grow, to be divisive, as one grew up between me and Xena.
Dera Xena I had to tell them the truthYou Warrior Princess, you fountain of youthYou poor man’s Serendipity, you museRemembering Falling? Remember Ballyhoo?Remember all those times you said, without sarcasm,Without dissembling,I love you for all the wrong reasons,For all we share? It never diedIt’s all still there, just packed away, safe from time.
This was a place we invented, a make-believe ballroom where, before we went to sleep, we would talk the other to sleep, so that we could attempt to follow them into their dreams to make our long distance relationship possible. At first we would sync movies to begin at the same time and then shut off the lights and pretend, if Poirot’s lips matched, we watched together, miles apart. We called it Romantic Action at a Distance. The idea was one night I remembered a song, it was that song, for those who know that stupid truism that there is one song that when listening all one does is think about ways to get drunk. Because for many the images of someone who we loved are flashing over our eyes and sobriety must be stopped. It is an unholy possession of what isn’t there: I sat in the car, put on the song (And this is true: the song was Madame Butterly. Every time I heard Marie Callas all I thought of was her. And every time I saw the Girl in the Pearl Earring I’d have a sort of rush of memory, taking me back to the couch at her house as we sat scrunched together watching war documentaries. It was research. Our book was to be about a great supervillain named Dlina, ‘wave length’, a villain who starts World War III and becomes a universal absolute dictator. The character, at least, was based in part on Xena in her more … imperial moments. The fantasy was that she would subdue the world, and we would write about the tragedy of peace. The tragedy that winning does not justify, such as the failed campaigns of the villains, the greatest victories, are to some the worst of tragedies. To lose one person must be nothing for the amount of widows made by the greatest of wars, from Ramses II at Kadesh to General Lee Gettysburg, Paulus at Stalingrad, all those orphans made by chance, by the far-off warcry of absentee fathers pursuing glory and virtue, as the marshal Romans did, like Alexander of Macedon or Tamerlane, Genghis Khan or Ashoka. It is hard, I believe, to learn empathy, to learn it past the conceptual knowledge of understanding that, yes, fire is hot, with the physical and conscious knowing what fire feels like when it grabs you and forces you to bow to pain. That’s the moment artists try to preserve, the moment something is taken: is that not the measure of tragedy? To lose a princess, if only one who is titled this to avoid getting sued, is surely not so deep a problem as, say, the fall of Thebes to the Persian army, when the centuries of cultural riches of Egypt were taken and the city sacked, not as thoroughly as Rome had sacked Carthage, but it was plundered; men were carried off as slaves, women as concubines. I know, and this might surprise you, the world is larger than what I can see. But when you have, or think you have nothing, something, anything can become the equivalent of a world. I do not try to compare this surgical, umbilical severance to the Waterloo, morne plane. I understand. But it is a different of knowing conceptually that fire is hot, and having to burn, and in that is all the difference in the world.
When I say that it is fiction, I mean that there was no “Kevin” or no Shit-marsh, but there was a man, there was a Maybelle, and in the end, her laptop was returned. After doing some investigation, after the pathetic lamentations of the previous chapter, I found out how my computer was stolen, how I came to the nexus point. A nexus point is when life is greatly altered, after which a previous possibility becomes impossible and a new life that did not have to be starts. A nexus point is an event that knocks down the strongest. The greatest men, have, and so do the greatest women, something that has hurt them. It may have been a man who, as sorry as he is, harmed her children, or it may have been a laptop thief. It may have been a series of events put in motion the moment where I decided it was okay to steal something. I got the laptop that I needed. It helped me get, not only our relationship started again, but I got to visit, to work on the story, I got to snuggle one last time and hold her. Without it, I would have remained a 9-5 walking embodiment of the ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’. A caricature of ‘tortured artist’, recycling tropes from Edgar Poe. The opiate addiction, the taunting of birds. A raven that said ‘Nevermore!’ and an owl who said ‘Who!’ and, to a schizophrenic, you must agree that this is at least rude. ‘Who’ the owl asked, ‘Who, who, who, who’ — and to a man who wears first the clown mask then the very-serious-aren’t-you mask, this is a trick question. It is like the Blank Man created in the novel L’homme Nouveau by Charles Pinon. The blank man was created by a scientist without any moral or racial prejudices, given the perfect brain and the perfect muscles, the strength, the perfect athleticism. But when the blank man is introduced to gambling, he gets over-competitive at the roulette table. The idea of chance for a being made of purpose is an intoxication, as is the idea of order for those at home in crisis. The blank man acquires behavior very similar to that of a machine, as Pinon describes: ‘He renamed himself as to throw off the watching security cameras of the casino, wearing his new beret and knit-scarf. He had not come to win; the excitement of gain was an alien one. The idea that order was not constant, or randomness, that was a rush. The meaninglessness for the blank person, programmed to be the perfect person, was a powerful motivator. As he turned into a middle-aged man, the blank person became very serious with women. But, at the moment it got serious, or the question of permanence arose, the formerly blank man, now going by the name of Theodore [he changed his name for every person he met, reasoning that it would be better that they remember him as he was for them and not as he was by popular reputation, as he hated popular description when it did not accord with his sense of innate purpose, despite his reveling in the chaos of our normal person’s existential horror, his own horror was in the inability of others to perceive him uniformly, only as, what he believed, were a variety of facets of his total person, but as he aged, he lost memory of them, and each facet came undone until, in the end, he was the Blank Man once again.
We were out of touch for a long time, and in that time, I replaced the laptop with a replica, and continued to write. I worked on finishing a collection of short stories, like sane men do. In the meantime, I came to know that the laptop had been found. I had called my family first, then I called two friends. While one had never come by, or so his girlfriend at the time said, the other had, by his own admission, walked by my house. The problem with this is that person would later go onto say some very incriminating things. Let’s look at it from a detective’s point of view. If something goes missing and you want to make sure someone has it, if it is being ransom, what would be the first way to identify the person who indeed has it? Imagine it as one of those, ‘Found: Large Amount of Cash’ situations wherein one must go in and state the exact amount lost in order to claim the money. This makes it impossible for anyone to just come in and say, ‘I lost a large amount of money’ and take it away, just because anyone who says that can get it. The first thing you want to know who is aware of details only someone who would have it would be aware of? The MURDERER! In this case, the person who took it. Well, I made friend’s with a guy, who was also friends with the other person whom I had attempted to get to come by my house and look for my laptop. This new friend, let’s call him duplicitous, decided he would do me a favor and tell me that the other friend, whom he knew I suspected of having stolen my laptop, was bragging that he had taken my computer. He was also saying, incorrectly as it turned out, that I couldn’t go to the police because it was stolen. this was an err on his part, because I did go to the police as soon as Xena let me out at my house. I got on my desktop computer and pinged the server on the missing laptop to get an IP address; this would let me get a geo-location and found out where it was the night it was taken but the officer was more concerned with writing up the criminal report that getting back the stolen property. This would be like if a police officer were to arrive at your home after your wife has been shot and, instead of doing everything he can to save her life, wants to get all the paperwork taken care of. Not only did the person who apparently wanted me to know he had stolen from me said that the computer had been stolen, which implied not only did the new friend, the duplicitous one, know the exact laptop, since it had been stolen by “Kevin” from Maybelle, the hypothetical lady who had misplaced trust in a junkie (I understand you could make the joke that this description could apply equally to Xena, but in my defense, fuck you). This guy always happened to know that inside the bag of the stolen laptop were the two types of medication that were inside the case, the types of medication that I needed, the type that, had I had that night, the nexus point that turned me to a world in which I thought of strawberry suicide would not have happened! He had not taken just a laptop from me. He had taken a future from me. And I don’t care! I don’t care that it comes down to a choice I made! I was put into a position to make that choice only because of this theft, this theft from me! He took my fucking future, he took her, even if through my hands, the moment he carried off that computer. He took away a future, a future where such nights of lounging in bed, of listening to Swann’s Way and talking about Japanese panty vending machines, he took away every moment that could have meant something more than a daily dredge in a lecture hall, or a day alone, a night alone, a night when you have to be Nobody by yourself. And in the end, Maybelle got her computer back. But the man who stole the computer from me, I never called him out on it. I always made him believe I thought the other man to be guilty, that way I could say such things as ‘what kind of piece of shit would do that?’ in front of the person who did it, to call them a piece of shit to their face in my own very slippery way of getting some petty revenge. We remain friends to this day. Well, I wouldn’t say friend but I’m not, as the Germans say, mad with desire to stick a knife in him.
There is an old joke in my family, by my adoptive siblings, that I was born with a boy’s balls but with a woman’s sensibility. What they mean is that, as a young boy, I cried when I saw things die. Or when I watched a film and, say, someone is hit by a car. They sat with popcorn on their laps and, each time someone hit a windshield, god damn, they’d hoot and holler like drug addled owls let loose in very small space. The notion is that I care too much, or that I let things bother me that I shouldn’t, and the lesson here is that they’re not exactly progressive in the way that they view gender and toughness, despite my adoptive mom having had more balls than the three male children she had, not including the two she would adopt, including me and my eldest younger brother (it’s not complicated at all). She was a woman for whom I had absolute respect. I would not say she was as tough as nails; nails, to her, would be as soft as jell-o pudding. She could take a shower in diamond and it would not be dry. It would require a Dorothy tipped drill to cut through diamond. And yet, they said I was a woman, since I wrote poetry and thought Egypt and dinosaurs were each the coolest subjects on Earth and I wanted to be a performing clown, like Pagliacci. They suggested perhaps I was a homosexual, and from then on I kept such literary notions to myself, and though I talked to my father, we never talked about how I should be more of a man. My real father, I never knew, and this isn’t hackneyed fiction, it’s hackneyed truth, but I knew my adoptive father, but only for the 8 years in which I lived with him after being adopted. He died when I was fourteen, before I had to shave, before I would disappoint a woman for the first time sexually. He never told me how to be a good person. But when he died, I took my graduation present and spent all of the money on books on ethics and philosophy. They took me in, and I wanted to repay that generosity. I studied the ethics of men who had no problem with slavery and execution, with philosophers of the highest virtue whose teachings would be perverted within years of the deaths. I saw the great religions of the world and thought, as a typical atheist does, look at all the war and horror caused by this. Of course, at that time, I did not consider that, among the living, there is great comfort, and for the dead, well, as they say, the war is over. I was always a pacifist, more yet, I was a coward. I thought that being without fear meant not being afraid of death. No, it is being afraid of trying your hardest and then admitting that you’ve failed. It’s getting the opportunity through your own choices, and then losing, not because of fate or misfortune, but through choice. And the debates of human nature are myriad, but I think of people much more like the blank slate mate from Pinon’s absurdist novel. They take in what they believe to be guiding principles, think themselves of worth and purpose, and then are somehow shocked when the universe doesn’t seem like it was made to cater to their whims, almost as if it’s silence, if the long shadow of silence is the silence of god. The silence of absence, of Xena, of giggling in the dark, of the settling of a mire, that, in its miasmatic form, at least, is not locked; transience is not simply the passing of the good, it is the impermanence of the bad. Xena, whom I kept up with, watching as her life became happier and happier, and, I wanted to be virtuous. I wanted her to be happy. Even if she was happy because of someone else. I was Nobody, a little joke we used to make based on a flop of a book I wrote (it was fiction, but the failure of it in this work of fiction is true); I created a character who, being an addict, imagines himself to be a slave and, like the blank man, tells everyone he meets he is a different person until, finally, he does not know which mask is his actual face. So he takes the name Neti Atman, or not self, and Nobody, as a sort of linguist joke between very nerdy friends, became how I would refer to myself in saying certain things that, ironically, sound horrible. I would say: “This is why Nobody loves you” or “Nobody will ever love you”, but with the key to the cypher, it is not saying Nobody, it is a less awkward way for an awkward, very confused man to say I love you, without losing the hint of irreverence that makes the pain of being rejected when in earnest more bearable.
After Xena got engaged, she went to an exotic land, not only because I don’t want to narrow this down so far that the real person can become known because of my tales, but it had also been a place we had talked about visting. And while there she went to 2-21 B Baker St, the Sherlock Holmes museum. My favorite literary ubermensch. She visited Shakespeare’s home (allegedly) and I saw her there, with someone that was not me, and I was okay with that. I thought, the tragedy of my having been in her life has been mitigated, as her virtuous actions have followed, as an ox follows a cart. But, deep down, it’s hard to be happy when a friend succeeds. To see an enemy fail, that is an easy thing to bear. But the success of a friend? Never. But, I digress. Xena always said that a digression becomes a conversation when there’s no end to it, to which I responded by talking about the differences between expressionist and impressionist art for two hours to make a point about the difference between passive and impassive passion. And yes, she spoke to me again. This is coming now not quite to the end of our tale, but it is within sight. To come up to the present day, it won’t take long. She contacted me, perhaps, because she remembered that when we talked, when I made her laugh those very specific laughs, the ones which earned only a haha were not to be repeated, but those that let out a smattering of laughter followed by the vocal, high pitched end-of-laugh sigh, the voice of a Warrior Princess, a woman of virtue, of nobility, the woman in whose presence I would insert the clip of Wayne’s World with Mike Meyes and Garth doing they’re we’re not worthy schtick, but from what we’ve covered, it’s probably abundantly obvious that this is so. I had studied what was right but had never taken the trouble to doing it. Etc, was the start of it, but I will not digress; I will go forward. She contacted me a few months ago, saying that her relationship with, let’s call him “Dicknose”, wasn’t working out. She couldn’t talk to him, and he was stupid. And, well aware of my other faults, and they. are. LEGION. She said she had always thought that we had intelligent conversations, not necessarily that I was smart, but us, when put together, were the sum of our parts, not merely two people inhabiting differently fleshy vehicles, but one person divided between them, and I think she believed in this, this notion that, if I was not the one, as a zero, I had come the closest to being the one without going over while Dicknose had been a boor. She told me that her engagement with this man was over, and after that day, we began talking every day again. Within a few days, we talked on the phone. And I talked to her every day, and apologized each time I had a chance. I would like to think there is a happy ending, that there is now, again, a glimpse of light; in that, that the virtue of one person might make redeemable a person who would be, without them, irredeemable, without any quality to anyone. Someone Nobody would love. We started working on that book of ours again, and working on our story. It’s a rough draft, but I think it has potential. She told me that, when she got in arguments with her fiancée, while he so remained, he would sometimes say, This is why Nobody will ever love you, and when he mentioned Nobody, she thought of me. It’s not quite Cindarella, sure, but I’ll take it.
Do you think politicians have never made ridiculous laws and enforce absurd punishments? Oh, you sweet naive theoretical person. For anyone caught up in the craziness of modern politics, I’d like to share some of history’s most ridiculous laws and their effects.
5) Books are Imprisoned in Pre-Revolutionary France
When you think about the French Revolution, what comes to mind? A whole bunch of guillotines and terrorized citizens? An Emperor of exaggerated shortness? What about the reason for all that guillotinin’?
Before the French Revolution, France was divided into three estates, or classes. Each were privileged under private law (the definition of privilege) and for those born at the bottom, you started from the bottom and you died there, as well as all of your descendants. The first and second estates were the nobility (those who fight, soldiers, generals); those who pray (the clergy and the church). The third estate was everybody else. That’s roughly 99% of the people. They were born with better, bluer blood, and that’s just tellin’ it how it is.
Started from the bottom now we here.
Now, if you were in the third estate, you had to pay the nobility for permission to work on their land, pay the royal taxes and the salt tax (which the first and second estates did not have to pay). You were also unable to talk about things such as “human rights” or “natural rights” of “equality” or “freedom”. If someone was to write a book that suggested that, hey, wait, maybe all people should be treated equally under the law, they were prone to arrest and imprisonment. And their books would be locked up, too, right there in the Bastille.
French philosophes were the driving idealists behind the period now known as the Enlightenment. It was a period in European history where traditional values and customs were being challenged by trendy notions of “logic” and “reason”. The French philosophes, Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau were the driving force behind the social scene, where the upper classes sat in fancy salons talking un-ironically about the Equality of Man, chugging like it was infused with sugar that was the product of slave labor in their overseas colonies. But if you wrote any of this down, the King would haul you and your fucking pamphlet and books into the slammer. He did the same to the Marquis de Sade, the E.L. James of his day, except for the talent, wit and talent. Did I mention talent?
#4 – Tsar Nicholas I Sentences a Boat to Death (for Treason)
After his father Alexander II got exploded on the 8th assassination attempt (suck it, Lincoln!) his son, Nicholas I, instead of the presumed heir Konstantine, would exceed to the throne. Nicholas was, a bit conservative. Even for an autocrat. The first thing he did was roll-back all of his father’s reforms, such as the zemtsvos (which it has been noted may have grown into state legislatures), along with some literary independence (writing the wrong portrayal of, say, any other Russian Tsar, would get you exploded. As for Alex “il Duce’ Romanov, he has come to be known as the Great Liberator, after he freed the serfs in 1861, 3 years before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Students and readers are no doubt familiar with Shakespeare’s popular history play Julius Caesar. What may be less familiar is the social and political climate in which the play was written. There had been a long succession crisis in Tudor england during the 1560s1 and the possibility of civil war was very real. With no heir or obvious successor, it’s not hard to imagine Elizabeth sensing plots all around her. With Parliament standing in for the senators of Rome in Shakespeare’s drama, she had every right to be nervous. There were plots being organized to overthrow Elizabeth I. Pope Pius V denounced her as a heretic and decreed anyone who killed her would not sin, and would have god’s blessing. Conspirators on the ground in France and Catholic Spain plotted her overthrow with Rome, organized behind the idea of putting the Catholic Mary Steward on the throne. Elizabeth outmaneuvered Mary, and she would face the gallows after being caught out on a conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth, and she was consumed within the famous Babington plot, and later at Chartley Manor by Elizabeth’s very capable spymaster, Walsingham. One wonders if Elizabeth ever dreaded that the English Civil Wars would soon upon her death, and wondered about the Parliament threat to the persons of Kings and Queens.
This paper will not be a study of which conspiracy is right or wrong. It will not be based on a personal perspective, but on a perspectival that looks at conspiracy and its effects on those who are inclined to believe them and skeptics. A conspiracy movement is motivated by shared beliefs and principles, sometimes philosophical, sometimes political, and they’re willing to work towards the realization of an agreed upon social object. Conspiracies are the culture myths of the post-social world, whereby we understand the phenomena of thunder much more than we do the complicated and elaborated that conspiracists work to bring out of each other in an example of social multi-think. Questioning belief can become a mantra, and conspiracy is a skeptic’s secular mythology, replete with heroes and villains like the mythography of old, with apostles and gurus, each armed with Psalm-like literature. There are characters that deceive, misinformation agents, and our social and personal self-actualization is in opposing them. If not physically, spiritually, as the hero exposes the global conspiracy of alien control through media consumption and dies with a middle finger pointed at them in John Carpenter’s social satire They Live. It has been taken to be a sort of allegory, but it can be an allegory literarily speaking without necessarily being a true intentional revealing of a specific conspiracy about a specific peoples. But, conspiracy theories have applied to others (and our entertainment has thrilled us with the barbaric others in popular cinema). The notion for us in the modern world is to pull the mask off these powerful structures to expose them, as a conspiracy theorist is want to do in a case where they have become emotionally compromised by the material. It falls in line with the notion that in the west hearing “voices” as a symptom of schizophrenia is typified by angrier, more violent personas than those in far-eastern countries. While those in America imagine hostile forces.
In ancient cultures, these inner voices were considered the voice of ancestors, in Chinese familial piety, the sense of self actualization came through the reverence of tradition and the ancestors, passing down their belief and storytelling traditions, waiting for each successive generation to contribute. As in an unfinished religion, before the New Testament, there was still an installment on its way. And yet, an active conspiracy theory is an oral tradition that has yet to be formalized and compiled into its secular mythology. Those who have rejected traditional structures for alternatives hold as fast as to those alternatives as they once held, or as those they now self-arrange as opposite, replacing what was once the vast force of God and giving meaning to the season by the explanation that the earth rotates on an axis at a 23-degree tilt, causing the seasons. We give the force of nature over to nature, letting it be sufficient enough to enforce its own laws, while behind the scenes where there were once vast, all-powerful gods and forces of nature, we now have a never-ending lattice wherein all contribution towards the conspiratorial argument of a belief structure is attached to a pre-structured apocrypha. In the past, we resigned the unseen work to Providence, but in a conspiratorial mindset we put the hat on those that can’t be identified. We give human agency to chance and probability, imbuing it with many and purpose, with a ready source of blame for our discontent.
In ancient cultures, beliefs and cultural identity came from tradition and culture heroes4. A social cell ranges from a small collective come together by an operative principle of thinking together, the creation of a social, public area of life with mutual interests. Any collective, from native tribes to modern collectives, has a foundational, motivational principle built into its structure. A civilization could be, in this sense, regarded as a realized social cell: a cell in which a stable majority of interacting non-social individuals share the beliefs and values of the collective and identify socially in the manner of an individual, participating in holidays and respecting the traditions of the tribe. An individual need only look to the heroes and villains of legend to understand how to work virtuously and for the greater good, as a civic service.
Historically, a generic social cell was built on the foundation of myth, identity, purpose, motivation, and meaning. A civil purpose, the familiar routines of tradition and communal meals at synagogue, church, or Masonic lodge. Conspiracy touches on notions of structural stability, that of institutions and social, greater good establishments for an organized people, where the social cell perpetuates shared values which give individuals a group identity of non-social goals. A pre-social cell is a society that hasn’t congealed, or one that is together purely for survival and necessity. When we consider groups, we would do better to consider individual motives. The study of conspiracy theory allows us to look at how belief takes shape by looking at myth as it happens, in popular entertainment, literature and culture. It helps us understand how societies function in their formation and disintegration. In conspiracy theories, one can work by looking for patterns. And sometimes, when we are possessed of a belief, we tend to see patterns everywhere, and the mistakes we make in finding patterns where there are none is something worth considering when looking for patterns you expect to see, as pareidolia can make links to ideas and objects where there are none.5.
Another interesting facet of conspiracies is that of its ability to inspire, and draw inspiration from, popular hysteria, such as the red scare of McCarthyists and the military purges of Josef Stalin after the Russian Civil war, is it a coincide, that so many fall before the charge Traison! As it tends to have its greatest effects in times of socio-political upheaval, the study of conspiracy allows us look at history with a warped lens, where everything is potentially menacing. A popular notion, perhaps made popular by Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the historical impact of the Salem witch trials in America, a land whose founding myth is in thirds the freedom of religion, meaning freedom to have or to live peacefully if not. These laws were not in place in such times; it gave people the last desperate and historical impact, with many failed conspiracies exerting an impressive influence on the present, which all good myths do: it highlights connections before the expression, such as the assassination of Julius Caesar bringing to popular attention the possibility of a civil war, and common attributes denote common substance. It’s not surprising that solved conspiracies such as Watergate have not kept the same amount of cultural appeal as America’s political assassination conspiracy. The film All the President’s Men could have been a guide for Oliver Stone: it begins with a small discrepancy, a few reporters start to cover the conspiracy as it’s happening, but at the end, the conspiracy is revealed. President Nixon resigned from the office of President of the United States 2 months after the publication of the investigator’s book on the case6, as the whole process is painstakingly detailed in the follow up to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation, as the Nixon administration dissolves, taking down one of the most Machiavellian politicians of his era, foiled in the end by a burglar 7.
The kind of conspiracy and myth that endures and becomes a necessary component of one’s culture is one without a definite solution. There is a contrariness in our approach; attracted to mystery, yet through our earliest literary work, the Epic of Gilgamesh, had already started asking questions about life and death and mortality. Humans are inclined towards mystery, but closure amid crises, even if the resolution is horrific, the conspiracy theory that has yet to be disproved and as such has a massive corps of motivated, public-object-oriented individuals who continue the tradition, as oral lit was the repetition and slight changing and passing down from one generation to the next, a similar cycle for conspiratorial detailing, the world-building of a conspiracy theory as a genre of literature.
Watergate did shock the majority of Americans (perhaps not as much because of president Nixon’s behavior but their surprise at his getting caught) and yet at the same time we got an answer. The enduring mythology is that type of adaptable myth, that is multi purposed for different eras and arranged in slightly different ways. It is a way to contribute to the continued stability of a society’s institutions, as the faith in the American government fell sharply after the Nixon administration and, and public trust in the government has continued to decline.8 But the whole of the cell didn’t collapse; the organizational principle remained to all as long as it remained to one capable of sharing and reuniting the social cell. It wasn’t necessary, though: Gerald Ford was sworn in on 8th August 19749 and everyone moved on. But Caesar’s assassination has resonated with many different cultures since the Ides of March in the year 44 B.C.E.
Shakespeare would return to conspiracy and assassination more than once in his career, notably in Richard II10, giving Carlisle the prophesy that, if Richard II were to be deposed, there would be a civil war. in Shakespeare’s time, he wrote about a society that, above all things, saw the image of a king as that of something oppressive, despotic, arbitrary, chaotic, sociopathic and unreasonable. We see a world of stark, dramatic measures, where it is political maneuver by the blade; where it was not for the meek. As Shakespeare continued to study the story of Julius Caesar, and later Antony and Cleopatra, one assumes he might have been alarmed at what he saw. Caesar Augustus’ had a long reign, though not as long as that of Elizabeth I. The victory at Actium by Augustus had been the last time roman soldiers crossed swords with fellow Romans, and in the gallery of Julias Caesar, no one in the hall thought of what that might look like, an English Civil War or the execution of a king. Oliver Cromwell was born the year of Shakespeare’s debut of his new play, in 1599, and would later be a key signatory to King Charles I death warrant.
II INTERSOCIAL MYTHMAKING
Murder by Decree was released in 1976. Starring Christopher Plummer and George Mason. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are on the trail of the elusive Jack the Ripper. Sherlock Holmes’ story, which – like all conspiracies that work with other, larger conspiracies – there is a shared mythology each time a new conspiracy answer is added to the collective myth, as the collected myths of Hesiod, the traditional Orphic poems, and Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound11. Each tale fills in the blanks where other myths are silent, therefore giving the foundation a more solid structure simply by making it a part of a structure that is already a foundation.
The movie Murder by Decree is a pastiche1, a type of story where public domain characters, such as Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu stories written long after the original authors have stopped writing. This film takes bits of fiction, and a bit of fictional history, set in Victorian, England. It borrows characters and scenarios from the wellspring of Jack the Ripper murders and the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The explanation for Jack’s enduring popularity is the same as that of spy thrillers and Agatha Christie; we’re in it for the questions, not the answers, and in a case in which no one knows the truth, this let us project our own notion of evil and depraved onto possible suspects, drawing on phobias and primeval fears, and we assume the role of virtuoso hero in search of trust. The mixture of Jack the Ripper myths has spilled into Alan Moore, whose graphic novel was adapted into From Hell, where an opium smoking Johnny Depp blunders through the squalid East End streets, in the midst of a serial killer who is just getting started. As a depiction of the interplay in conspiracy and the normal behavior of the human brain, by showing the detective process as the connection of one item to one person, finding grape sprigs dropped in the street, pathetic clues. The facts are almost boring. The only thing worse than a mystery that can’t be solved is a mystery with an easy solution, though, and so it appeals to that side of our problem solving nature.
And it’s understandable for a period of such chaos and confusion and fear to generate ever more elaborate conspiracy theories. An unsolved murder mystery is a natural environment for a conspiracy theory, as they thrive in high profile, unsolved murders and cold cases. In Murder by Decree, the author seems to work by the notion of propinquity, that of establishing proximity and thereby a ‘link’ that confirms a certain idea, making innocuous correlations seem ominous and deeply important. What remains remarkable about this is the mixing of myth with purported fact, the connecting the dots method of research, and is an international, multisocial myth.
Understanding how myth influences the way we think, through Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories14 or bad movies, may let us understand what social myth offered pre-social societies. Any force capable of disturbing social order like famine or natural disasters, capable of destroying societies, was sure to have related mythography. It was by the social progress that a non-personal idea becomes a shared public object, which works as a refined coping mechanism.
The multisocial myths was popular after the Roman conquest of Greece, where Rome adopted Greek deities, storytelling traditions, and philosophical ideas of the new satellite state15. This is an example of a stronger social cell absorbing and retaining the core of an assimilated social conscience through conquest. The seasons themselves are given character, personality, and agency, such as in etiological story of Demeter’s despair, with the crops failing upon her daughter Persephone departing each yard for the underworld. This was a personal relationship of interactive social forces.
Roman would develop its own social-historical myths and characters16. When cultures endure severe times, famine, plague, and disease, a means of humanity’s endurance during these confusing and chaotic times is to ‘attempt to define the indefinable’17. The practice of making sense of chaos and of tragedy is a recognizable primordial form of conspiracism. Powerful forces behind the scenes, mighty and awesome beings of immense influence and empires, capable of holding empires beneath the whims and caprice of invisible hands – the use of anthropomorphic gods as stand-ins for natural abstracts – makes them more familiar; and there is comfort in familiarity. is an imprint of what individual lives within the cell were like; it is a social thumbprint
Etiology is the ennobling of one’s past and allows for something in the social sphere to mean something, rather than it be a senseless loss, or unpoetic, cruel human loss. In the case of a conspiracy, the subsequent imparting of meaning somehow adds our non-social person to the material relationship within the social cell.
As ancient civilizations build their myth and culture around the powers that held them in thrall, each reckoned as an abstracted quality given human form, modern conspiracy theory often contains many of these elements. From the prevalence of powerful groups manipulating events from behind the scenes, to a small group of recurring powers with control extending like long filaments into every orifice of the world, they’re omnipresent
The relationship between the building of myth and conspiracy is not superficial. Both attempt to explain the inexplicable; each are populated by an attempt to give meaning to and find solace in a tragedy by giving it a familiar, recognizable face. Further, the modern conspiracy culture is an ever expanding group, with a founding myth that gives purpose to their efforts, with the task of giving a human face to these unseen forces and ascribing meaning to the innumerable questions conspiracy theories generate. With a human face and a sense of meaning, a group has an identity and a purpose, with their actions ennobled.
Finally, a myth is bound to reinforce a sense of cultural identity through the organizing principle and build bonds through a new, shared understanding, like the pantheon of Roman gods, by looking closely at them and seeing their fears, their idea of heroism and virtue, of villainy and vice. In short, it is the window into the anatomy of an ancient and long-lived human tendency to look for meaning, to look for patterns in nature and in human behavior.
The manner of a founding myth’s stability for a civilization and larger society comes from much older processes in the human brain, not limited to human beings. Connecting the dots, pattern recognition, seeing causal relationships between nature and material action. In pre-industrial social cells, the inclination to conspiratorial thinking and designs of competing social cells, cells competing within with out-growths or at war with a foreign, differently organized and motivated cell, allowed for individuals to have a sense that they were a part of something larger than themselves, and that it wasn’t all meaningless. Sometimes that’s enough for a society to survive, as long as some part of it becomes a part of a future socio-organizational myth.
The character of the surviving social cell then is a society unified behind traditional beliefs, history, and culture, and its consistency among the population can be viewed as the measure of the cell’s popular cohesion. By connecting an individual’s misfortune with that of the social cell, or with characters of history and legend, persons can draw strength and motivation from these traditions, mythical characters, and the behavior of great culture heroes., mutual belief, and a shared history is how a social cell is defined, it is an important factory in a society’s behavior, internally and externally.
In other cases, a newly formed social cell, after passing through a period of rebellion (usually revolution), will go to war as a means of social unification and nationality. This way, a newly formed social cell remains stable as a cell in rebellion, without having to settle for a cohesive national structure. One popular example of this is the myth of war enthusiasm in pre-World World I Germany. War enthusiasm is a popular term used to define the spirit of national identity prior to the war18. One can’t help notice the similar public attitude during times of revolution, as the enthusiasm for revolution in France was far more pervasive – including elements of every rung of society, from the poorest to the emperor – than the enthusiastic patriots of a newly founded and suddenly powerful German. The citizens of the newly formed social cell of Germany had the legends and heroes of the wars of German unification, giving a newly united and sovereign cell, founding on a myth of revolution. A perpetually revolutionary cell will fall apart, as much as a perpetually anti-social cell will fall to multisocial cells.
One of the major nexus points in world history is the conspiracy to assassinate Arch Franz Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
A conspiracy in theory is a shared dissenting myth, around which motivated groups become organized. Rallied by principle and motivated by social, or political goals, a conspiracy theory sometimes rebels against a standard, accepted structure within a society. When there is social dissent within a shared myth or religious schism, one sees civil war and reformation. Sometimes, in post-industrial social cells, the denunciation of a previously established ideal can become a large enough cell in itself to push against its traditions, which can lead to revolution, such as the French Revolution of 178319. As historian Simon Schama observed: “Virtually as soon as the term was coined, ‘old regime’ was automatically freighted with associations of both traditionalism and senescence. It conjured up a society so encrusted with anachronisms that only a shock of great violence could free the living organism within.”20 The French revolution can be said to demonstrate the principle of a cell in rebellion, an attempt to remake tradition and overturn what had been a majority. It can be seen as a rebellious cell’s attempt to force agreement for survival upon a possibly weak social cell and overturn it, as the monarchy collapsed during the Revolution of February 23-24, called the February revolution, as food riots broke out in Pretrograd21.
On March 3rd, tsarist rule had come to an end22. Revolutionaries are best viewed as social discontents, with socially cognitive objects in mind, and the means and nerve to carry out the socio-political objective through interaction with other social objects, persons or groups of persons. Non-social, personal interactions within cells can change the nature of the social sphere, the space between the inner and outer walls. The outer wall is our organizing impulse, maintained by social-interpersonal agreements. Social thought is a cohesive structure for maintaining a stable society, and for a social cell to be overcome, a transformation of the culture, traditions, and social mores must change with it, and the new core must be attained by majority.
III JFK, Subversion and the Cell in Rebellion
In a Times article in 201423 ““Here’s Why We Believe in Conspiracies”, prominent conspiracy scholar Jan-Willem van Prooijen, associate professor in social and organizational psychology at VU University Amsterdam, said, “Conspiracy theories often crop up during times of uncertainty and fear: after terrorist strikes, financial crises, high-profile deaths and natural disasters. Past research suggests that if people feel they don’t have control over a situation, they’ll try to make sense of it and find out what happened. The sense-making leads them to connect dots that aren’t necessarily connected in reality.”
After reviewing JFK, Roger Ebert was approached by Walter Cronkite for his review24. “There is not a bit of truth in it!” Cronkite said. The late film critic later wrote in his review that he felt that Stone was capturing a pervasive mood in the counter-culture about the assassination, that it was a film that captured the way some Americans felt, about the need for answers in the days and then years after the assassination.
Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison is a good fit for the character. His motivation and passion is understood as depicted. As assassination researcher and former Los Angeles County Public Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi puts it in Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy “…Rejecting the message of the clean-cut, wholesome-looking Costner (Garrison) is like rejecting motherhood, apple pie, and the American flag.”25
In the film, Costner’s take on Garrison is a patriot, open-minded, truth-seeking detective, looking to expose a vast conspiracy that has gotten to the heart of the American social cell. To seek the truth is a heroic act, to expose crime in places where the abuse of power is most likely is courageous, even. They follow leads, doggedly pursing them wherever they leave. They are physically and morally courageous, against a large and faceless system, intent upon giving it a face.
JFK perverts this in a way, historically, by neglecting to mention any detractions from the case Garrison attempts to put together in the film. Where it becomes social mythmaking is in providing questions and then answering them selectively. It is informative in showing the process of popular myth and belief as it is being made.
What’s the harm, then? As Bugliosi puts it, “The problem with Stone is, really, not that he egregiously fictionalized the Kennedy assassination. The problem was is that he was trying to convince everyone he was telling the truth.”26 A small group of patriots are pitted against the endless bureaucracies of the US Government, and they have their phones tapped. Team members betray the group (an evolving rebellion cell against an established social cell). The film’s world is a small group of men who are behind the major events, while we little people can’t even begin to comprehend the vast and inexplicable subtleties of this grand design. It is a tale of betrayal and personal sacrifice, but it’s for the sanctity of American traditions, for the truth. In a way, it is Jim Garrison playing the offenders of Caesar’s murder in the Shakespearean play, as Garrison brings up Julius Caesar to a fellow-researcher who is having doubts27. In the end, in the prosecution’s final summation, he gets to the heart of his accusation:
In JFK, Oliver Stone is attempting to present a widespread discontent which Americans had built up over the years, and takes a bit here and bit there from other prominent researchers whose work had kept the movement going between the release of the Warren Commission Report and the release of JFK. Since its release in ’91, as of 15 November 2013, according to a Gallup poll28, the majority of Americans believe JFK was killed in a conspiracy. This is common in cases of social thinking, or individual-social ideation – where a single person is influencing through social means the thoughts of a significant amount of people.
As a legal drama, JFK works as a film, but only by using ahistorical composite characters, such as “X”. X is important because he supplies the foundation myth for a new generation of anti-social cells: Oliver Stone joined the U.S. Army in 1967, and returned “very mixed up, very paranoid, and very alienated,”29 like many of his generation. The foundation myth of the Kennedy is that the president was taken out because he intended to withdraw from Vietnam. Surely, this is something that would’ve influenced Stone deeply and personally, as a veteran. When “X” introduced himself as “one of those secret guys in the pentagon”, and goes on to give the following speech:
“I spent much of September ’63 working on the Kennedy plan for getting all us personnel out of Vietnam by the end of ’65. This plan was one of the strongest and most important papers issued from the Kennedy White House. Our first 1,000 troops were ordered home for Christmas.”30 The plan mentioned in X’s statement is National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263.
L Fletcher Prouty, on whom X is based, really worked close to people involve in the formulating of this plan, but there is precious little evidence that Prouty himself had anything to do with. In his book, JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy repeats a similar claim (summarizing the McGeroge-Bundy cover letter that accompanied NSAM 263):
“At a meeting on October 5, 1964, the President considered the recommendations contained in the report of Secretary McNamara and General Taylor on their mission to South Vietnam. The President approved the military recommenddations contained in Section I B (1-3) of the report, but directed that no formal announcement be made of the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 US military personnel by the end of 1963.”31
Prouty goes on to quote the relevant section of the McNamara-Taylor report:
IB(2) A program be established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by US military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of US military personnel by that time.
IB(2) In accordance with the program to train progressively Vietnamese to take over military functions, the Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1,000 US military personnel by the end of 196332.
This leads Prouty to conclude, “In brief, those sections above are the essence of the Kennedy policy that would take men out of Vietnam in 1963 and the bulk of all military personnel out by 1965.”33
In order to understand Oliver Stone’s perspective in evaluating this film and its legacy, one might attempt to ‘solve’ it, or at least draw an inference based on our understanding of conspiratorial groups as cells in rebellion of their natural social environment, wherein a rebel cell might attempt majority and grow, based on how many social objects reject sources from once trusted foundations. By our study of myth as etiology, drive to search for truth and meaning.
For viewers, it’s easy to see how the tragedy of the JFK assassination is compounded by the tragedy of the Vietnam War, as it was for Oliver Stone, in which millions would be killed or wounded, and millions more shocked and sobered by the horrors of war. To take JFK from the people by this assassination, from the people he might have otherwise spared the traumas of this divisive, ignominious war, is a greater tragedy than that of a lone assassin. This is how a social event can directly affect someone on a non-social level, and motivate them to rally around a social object as a means of organization and of personal principle.
From the perspective of Stone and many, an entire generation – a lost microbe of what may have become foundational and contributed to the stability of the national/cultural – to look at this film as fact, the conspiracy theory turns JFK into more than a victim, shot while the world looked on, in broad daylight – it gives us a martyr, someone who died for a cause, giving meaning to his death beyond the event itself, but, as we’ve seen, gives us closure, stability, and a chance to get our bearings.
When a rebellion cell achieves majority, the record is distorted, the social cell deteriorates and is sickened by mixed constituent parts. History therefore is viewed through a warped lens when a minority individuals within a social cell rally together and achieve majority of believe, they are a cell in rebellion of the established cell. In such a case, the social cell’s outer membrane loses cohesion and assumes the identity of the rebel cell, wherein the filters of conspiracy are placed atop the historical record.
Our socio-personal development of conspiratorial thinking is an early stage of social-cognitive development, where we begin to consider others as social objects, with intent, motivation, belief, and purpose as oneself. Recognizing that someone can exist outside of the self as an independent object in a social environment, we can look at scenarios and project more or less how we would act if put in the same situation.
As we gradually become aware of another person as a thinking agent, the first step towards psychological, motivational inference is in reading someone’s intent by an examination of their actions. In Cognitive Development34 John H. Flavell outlines social cognition as series of developmental stages, each a part of social cognition’s complexities as we interact with others, and attempt to recognize other social phenomena, that of persons as thinking persons, with intents and points of view different than ourselves, it is the basic knowledge of aspect of the social world exists in life35, that of its existence.
The first stage is the mere recognizing of another person, or persons, as social phenomena within a realm of interactive possibility. To think sociably, one considers that others, as individuals and groups, and among groups, have different ideas, beliefs, and unique perspective . The next stage of social cognition is need36, which amounts to individual attempts at understanding and acting with awareness of others’ feelings and experiences37.
Inference concerns a capacity to carry out social thinking successfully, though the thinking need not be strictly defined as inference, but more broadly as any social cognitive process, the discussion of personal ideas between individuals on a given subject. If you have the disposition to rely on inference as an act of social cognition, for example, you might look at a conversation and find a specific remark that is indicative of a broader range of beliefs and personal feelings.
Social cogitation is the sharing of inferences about the relationship between people and events, and the collective process of social cogitation is an organizing principle behind social groups, persons and individuals. Interactions between one person engaged in social cogitation and another influence anyone else involved in the social sphere capable of further inferences from these micro-interactions, or interactions among groups.
An important realization is that any cohesive society relies on harmonious social thinking; those an individual, like an individual social cell, is only one among many in the world, as an individual is only one among many, they have telling interactions when a post-social cell or united-social cells become possible. Social thinking is individual’s public voice, the chorus of which, among others, should be considered the mucus membrane of any social cell, whereas the inner core is a founding narrative, the recitation of the society’s origin and myths to reinvigorate and motive traditional social arrangements.
V Social division, rebellion, and revolution
We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France37, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.
In France in the 1780s the theatre could be a political space. Ordinary people got involved in the questions before the government. Books which offended the Royal Censor, such as the work of Enlightenment philosophes, were often censored in old regime France38.
Works that undermined the monarchy or the clergy, like Voltaire’s Candide and Rousseau’s The Social Contract, were censored and some of the books were literally taken to prison39.
Beaumarchais wrote The Marriage of Figaro in the 1780s. Reading it now, it seems tame. But at the time it was so radical that the censor took it to King Louis XVI himself. Louis said: “This shall never be played. It would be necessary to dismantle the Bastille itself before this could be played without consequences. This man mocks at everything in the government which ought to be respected.”40
Despite being formally banned, the play was an enormous hit in private salons. And when the ban was lifted, Figaro became one of the smash hits of the century41. What was it that made it so popular? It had the Royal Censor, which was sure to bring a crowd, as Simon Schama put it in his series The Power of Art41.
But on the other hand, it was cheap, and accessible to a wide class of society, from the madames and monsieur in the boxes to the often illiterate peasants in the pit.
The subversion that cut so deep into the traditions of old regime France aren’t noticeable today. But in a society of rank inequality between the classes, the rich and the poor, its egalitarian message, its winks to the clever and scrappy princes of Spain, Beaumarchais undermined the very foundation of the French social cell:
“Nobility, rank, position, how proud they make a man feel! You think because you are great nobleman you are a genius? Put yourself to the trouble of being born, nothing more. Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more. For the rest—a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century.”42
Calling an estates general would bring together representatives of the three legal orders of politically active Frenchmen: the aristocracy, the clergy, and the commoners. It had been inactive since 1614, and was called due to the financial crisis following France’s military support of America in its war of revolution against the British. The nation was going broke. The debt crisis was due primarily to the war with Britain and participating in the American Revolution. And years of poor harvests had caused grain riots in Paris43. This estates general brought the inequality of the old regime into sharp relief. It was bred into the French way of life. A seigneur or seigneury upon taking up residence in their parish takes their special pew at the front of the church, usually adorned by their coat of arms. The peasants of the lands pledge to work so much and dedicate so much barley and grain over the year. Traditional seigneurial dues allowed them to make bizarrely specific requests and demands of their peasants: for example, one nobleman’s list of dues was a number of ornamental feathers, a quota of olive oil and wine, a chicken, and a pair of leather gloves. The Catholic political arm of the old regime, weren’t only exempt from royal taxes, but got to impose a tithe on the peasants, while the seigneurial dues were owed to landowners by all peasants who worked in the lord’s bakery, or who made wine in the lord’s press.44
This was not a society in which secretly and behind the scenes a small group of rich men plotted on oppressing the public, distorting information to control and make them into mindless workers. This was not a secret. The notion of conspiracy, that of people in high office making subversive plans against the public, that was not a theory; it was a way of life. The foundations of King, aristocracy, tradition, ritual and the clergy were the foundational pillars of the French social cell, a cell rapidly losing cohesion. The revolutionaries didn’t want to overthrow the government, at first, with the right supporting the King. The political climate was tense when news of
After a major defeat in the Battle of Neerwinden in March 1793, he made a desperate move to save himself from his radical enemies. Arresting the four deputy- commissioners of the National Convention who had been sent to inquire into his conduct (Camus, Bancal-des-Issarts, Quinette, and Lamarque) as well as the Minister of War, Pierre Riel de Beurnonville, he handed them over to the enemy, and then attempted to persuade his troops to march on Paris and overthrow the revolutionary government. The attempt failed, and Dumouriez, along with the duc de Chartres (afterwards King Louis Philippe) and his younger brother, the duc de Montpensier, fled into the Austrian camp. This blow left the Girondists vulnerable due to their association with Dumouriez.
Citizen soldiers fought royalists in the Vende, in Western France, and after Dumirouriez defection, the left was radicalized, and quick to use the Girondists’ former support and political consistency with the traitorous general, and in radical press agigators like Jean-Paul Marat, a conspiracy-minded Jacobin who had predicted many of the turning points of the revolution, and when he pointed to a conspiracy, the revolutionary tribunal, once established, would take
To get past suspicions, of which conspiracy theory is now the formal disbelief, the inter-social exchange should be encouraged, when a social cell can interact with others and incorporate without absorbing, then the multisocial cell construct becomes possible.
A multisocial cell is the achievement of a society that can survive the attempts of anti-social opposition from without and rebel cells from within. This is a national stage of social development, as our first tribes were strictly isolated and xenophobic, our most modern social cells run the spectrum of hated, tolerated, supportive in its willingness towards social polyculturalism. In the anti-social cell, the tradition is a collection of traditions the individual social objects reject. But, as a rebel cell can only survive amid opposition, it cannot outlast the multisocial cell; for the cell in rebellion must be in rebellion to survive.
As Jacopo della Quercia’s recent books
The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocketwatch Conspiracy and License to Quill have shown, our enduring interest in conspiracy theories, whether in history, entertainment, literature and film, continues unabated. His recent works are, as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. By using history as an inspiration for a tale of discovery, intended to seek answers to great questions, to seek, to solve great mysteries of the past and use them as lessons for the mysteries that persist. While Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Richard II drew inspiration from other cultures, such as Rome and that of his own unique social history, Jacopo’s work draws upon popular tradition and even historical fiction to reveal what are timeless truths, multisocial foundations and unique attribute of the modern attempt at a multisocial cell: expressing a celebration of foreign histories and traditions as well as inter-social history, cultural diversity and adventure provide the foundations for future, possible multisocial cells.
Incorporating multiple traditions and myths into a social cell does not dilute the composite of the whole. They establish an elasticity and flexible structure, a foundation that will not break when pulled apart or when holes are picked in any individual foundation; a multisocial, polycultural cell is a hope for the future, perhaps.
V Towards a Multisocial Social Model
While JFK’s posthumous reputation has done to glorify him and lament the loss of promise shown by the handsome, young president and charming wife, only time will tell if this interactive social mythmaking keeps majority as a rebel cell, and further, how long a traditional social cell can remain cohesive with an alternative majority within a wider cultural consensus. One needs to look only to Nero, or to the irony of Lee Harvey Oswald, the person to whom all evidence points as the assassin, has been pardoned, with many within the conspiracy community believing in his absolute innocence. To contrast that, it’s a popular myth that the Emperor Nero ‘fiddled while Rome burned’.1
Cassius Dio’s account of the Great Fire and Nero’s Role in it can be found in his Roman History. Cassius Dio’s account is unflattering to say the least. He begins with the claim that “Nero set his heart on making an end of the whole realm dying during his lifetime.”
Dio’s account continues as Nero sets about sending out men pretending to be drunk or engaged in general hooliganism while setting fire to different parts of the city. After several days and nights of destruction and deluge, the wailing of children and lamentations of the women fill the air. Nero ascends to the roof of the palace which offered the greatest view of the conflagration. And assuming his lyre player’s garb he sang the Capture of Troy, as he styled the song himself.source please
Suetonius’ account of Nero in The Twelve Caesars
is similarly unflattering. In this account, Suetonius states that Nero pretended to be disgusted with the drab old apartments and the narrow, winding streets of Rome. He brazenly set fire to the series. Suetonius adds that two ex-consuls caught Nero’s attendants with tow and blazing torches trespassing on their property but did not interfere. Nero also used the fire to take over several granaries he coveted, solidly built of stone.
Suetonius claims the terror lasted for six days and seven nights, as people were forced to take shelter in monuments and tombs while Nero’s men destroyed apartment buildings as well as mansions that once belonged to famous generals, still decorated in their triumphal trophies; temples, dedicated and vowed by the Kings and others during the Punic & Gallic wars – in fact every ancient monument that had hitherto survived. Here’s where Suetonius deviates from the account of Cassius Dio:
“Nero watched the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas, enraptured by ‘the beauty of the flames”
. Then Nero put on his tragedians’ costume & and sang the sack of Illyricum. This is an example of a social myth in progress, though not quite congealed yet as a hardened part of the social cell. The thorough establishment of this socio- political myth is interrupted by Tacitus’ accounts from Annals.
In this account Nero was staying at his country estate at Antium and didn’t even return to the capital until the fire was nearing the house by which he had connected the Palatine with the gardens of Maecenas. After the fire proved unstoppable, before it could engulf the Palatine and the house and all their immediate surroundings, Nero continued to work to save property and lives. In this account, instead of singing (just yet) Nero worked hard to provide relief for the homeless and fugitive populace, opening the Campus Martius, the buildings of Agrippa, even his own gardens and threw up a number of extemporized shelters to accommodate the helpless multitude. The necessities of life were brought up from Ostia and the neighboring municipalities, and the price of grain was lowered to three sesterces.
With all of this effort, how did the Emperor become the suspect and ultimately accused of starting the fire? Tacitus gives us a hint at how tales, like those of Cassius Dio and Suetonius, were “the subject of few substantial conversations, but many earnest whispered accusations.”
Nero’s measures may not have been as popular as their moral character might be, having failed in their effect to reassure and console; for the report spread that at the very moment when Rome was aflame, he had taken to his private stage and, typifying the ills of the present by the calamities of the past, he had sung of the destruction of Troy.
The hint he gives for why this rumor might have caught on was that, after the first fire was finally brought under control at the edge of the Esquiline by demolishing the buildings over a vast area and opposing the great unabated fury, a clear tract of ground opened on the horizon. But the fears had not been allayed, nor had hope returned to the people when the fire resumed its ravages.
Here we have a massive tragedy, again, the conspiratorial fountain of youth, confusion and chaos are in the blood, and social thinking has been blanked by fear; the loss of home and shelter and, the second flame according to Tacitus caused the greater controversy as it had broken out on Aemilian property of Tigellinus and appearances suggested that Nero was seeking the glory of founding a new capital and endowing it with his own name.”
5 The ensuing national trauma was naturally a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, instead of reconciling their lot with the type of senseless tragedy this would be without some agency behind it, the people are left with nothing: no home or property, and no totem, or fear ikon on which to concentrate their exasperation. In the instance of natural disasters, humanity has the seemingly natural inclination to give intent and personality to the forces responsible. They gave Zeus the lightning bolt and virtue, Demeter weeping in the winter over the departure of the summer and her daughter. This instance of a human being given human traits is unique, as – at least as far as absolute power was concerned – an Emperor of Rome had as much power as was capable of being concentrated in two hands in the world at the time, a type of power less than a thousand people have historically wielded, and in front of this type of human power we have the same fear response. It is, as ever, a social definition that runs contrary to the official record. Instilling such fear in a populace can be beneficial for a ruler like Caesar Augustus, the longest uninterrupted ruler of Roman in its history at that time. And after Nero, there would be no heirs to the Julio-Claudian family, and again, there would be civil war.
6 Suetonius himself was born in the Year of the Four Emperors, a society in which generals and pretenders vied for the Imperial title
the first civil war since the assassination of Julius Caesar, which we discussed in the very first chapter. As it was with Figaro, poking at the structure of a long lived social cell can cause it to deteriorate. Over and over we’ve looked at conspiracy as an organizing principle, but organizational principles are operative when there is first separateness. The organizing principle of conspiracy theorizing and socio-mythography among individuals coming together is the motivational tendency toward civilization and culture.
We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France
, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.
A social conscience and shared culture is easy to take for granted; all the movie references our friends make we are able to share in a social moment only because in being saturated by the same pop culture, and as we share meanings we can move onto share meaningful things.
Social cognition is the necessary condition of a conscious social cell. Discontent with the foundations of an established cell in a time of stagnation is the outgrowth of displacement or reform, that of the rebel cell. During an outgrowth of a potential replacement cell – when a rebel off-shoot obtains majority – we can see how people form into groups and how groups and civilizations tend towards collective villains and heroes, which ultimately adds up to a group sharing perspectives, rather than the limitation of inference and suspicion, a motivating principle of shared means and ends would be collective thinking, in which people imagine together.
The social cell is the end result of the mechanism of cultural exchange involved in the faces of snow clouds, the personalities of a violent sea, and within the American social cell we have our founding myths, as well as Rome, and our heroes. Our heroes have moved from abstractions into more humble forces. To understand an age, look at what’s inside its social cell. In America, the inner walls are filled with books and movies, thrillers and supernatural thrillers, and unique in the American social scale is its welcome addition of those from other social cells to bring a piece of it with them, to enrich the social cell intended to be a place of many cultures, towards the idea of a multi-social cell, in which the individual foundational principles of other cells mix without malcontent. When malcontent is suspected, our imaginations are quick to fill in the blank, based on the way we would ourselves respond.
V Social division, rebellion, and revolution
We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France
, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.
In France in the 1780s the theatre could be a political space.
Ordinary people got involved in the questions before the government. Books which offended the Royal Censor, such as the work of Enlightenment philosophes, were often censored in old regime France.
Works that undermined the monarchy or the clergy, like Voltaire’s
Candide and Rousseau’s The Social Contract, were censored and some of the books were literally taken to prison.
39 Beaumarchais wrote The Marriage of Figaro in the 1780s. Reading it now, it seems tame. But at the time it was so radical that the censor took it to King Louis XVI himself. Louis said: “This shall never be played. It would be necessary to dismantle the Bastille itself before this could be played without consequences. This man mocks at everything in the government which ought to be respected.”
40 Despite being formally banned, the play was an enormous hit in private salons. And when the ban was lifted, Figaro became one of the smash hits of the centur
. What was it that made it so popular? It had the Royal Censor, which was sure to bring a crow, as Simon Schama put it in his series The Power of Art.
But on the other hand, it was cheap, and accessible to a wide class of society, from the madams and monsieur in the boxes to the often illiterate peasants in the pit.
The subversion that cut so deep into the traditions of old regime France aren’t noticeable today. But in a society of rank inequality between the classes, the rich and the poor, its egalitarian message, its winks to the clever and scrappy princes of Spain, Beaumarchais undermined the very foundation of the French social cell:
“Nobility, rank, position, how proud they make a man feel! You think because you are great nobleman you are a genius? Put yourself to the trouble of being born, nothing more. Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more. For the rest—a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century.”
42 Calling an estates general would bring together representative of the three legal orders of politically active Frenchmen: the aristocracy (who , the clergy, and the commoners. It had been inactive since 1614, and was called due to the financial crisis following France’s military support of America in its war of revolution against the British. The nation was going broke. The debt crisis was due primarily to the war with Britain and participating in the American Revolution. And years of poor harvests had caused grain riots in Paris
. This estates general brought the inequality of the old regime into sharp relief. It was bred into the French way of life. A seigneur or seigneury upon taking up residence in their parish takes their special pew at the front of the church, usually adorned by their coat of arms. The peasants of the lands pledge to work so much and dedicate so much barley and grain over the year. Traditional seigneurial dues allowed them to make bizarrely specific requests and demands of their peasants: for example, one nobleman’s list of dues was a number of ornamental feathers, a quota of olive oil and wine, a chicken, and a pair of leather gloves. The Catholic political arm of the old regime, weren’t only exempt from royal taxes, but got to impose a tithe on the peasants, while the seigneurial dues were owed to landowners by all peasants who worked in the lord’s bakery, or who made wine in the lord’s press.
(fine) This was not a society in which secretly and behind the scenes a small group of rich men plotted on oppressing the public, distorting information to control and make them into mindless workers. This was not a secret. The notion of conspiracy, that of people in high office making subversive plans against the public, that was not a theory; it was a way of life. The foundations of King, aristocracy, tradition, ritual and the clergy
were the foundational pillars of the French social cell, a cell rapidly losing cohesion. (source –
To get past suspicions, of which conspiracy theory is now the formal disbelief, the inter-social exchange should be encouraged, when a social cell can interact with others and incorporate without absorbing, then the multisocial cell construct becomes possible.
A multisocial cell is the achievement of a society that can survive the attempts of anti-social opposition from without and rebel cells from within. This is a national stage of social development, as our first tribes were strictly isolated and xenophobic, our most modern social cells run the spectrum of hated, tolerated, supportive in its willingness towards social polyculturalism. In the anti-social cell, the tradition is a collection of traditions the individual social objects reject. But, as a rebel cell can only survive amid opposition, it cannot outlast the multisocial cell; for the cell in rebellion must be in rebellion to survive.
As Jacopo della Quercia’s recent books
The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocketwatch Conspiracy and License to Quill have shown, our enduring interest in conspiracy theories, whether in history, entertainment, literature and film, continues unabated. His recent works are, as Shakespeare’s Julias Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. By using history as an inspiration for a tale of discovery, intended to seek answers to great questions, to seek, to solve great mysteries of the past and use them as lessons for the mysteries that persist. While Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Richard II drew inspiration from other cultures, such as Rome and that of his own unique social history, Jacopo’s work draws upon popular tradition and even historical fiction to reveal what are timeless truths, multisocial foundations and unique attribute of the modern attempt at a multisocial cell: expressing a celebration of foreign histories and traditions as well as inter-social history, cultural diversity and adventure provide the foundations for future, possible multisocial cells.
Incorporating multiple traditions and myths into a social cell does not dilute the composite of the whole. They establish an elasticity and flexible structure, a foundation that will not break when pulled apart or when holes are picked in any individual foundation; a multisocial, polycultural cell is a hope for the future, perhaps.
As for everyone else, society was not seen as a collection of individuals with legal or civil rights before the law. For commoners the possibility of advancement in life was slim, and the opportunity to advance based on talent, merit, or strength of character was one of the major egalitarian goals of the revolutionaries, to give everyone a say in the workings of their country and give the commoners the ability to advance on merit. The question that has been asked is why revolution broke out in an economically dynamic country. And while the answer isn’t a simple one, the peasants of France got to see themselves as just as deserving of natural rights as all the other citizens of France. Figaro stirred up a social cell and gave it egalitarian social goals, inspired by the great philosophes of the Enlightenment such as Diderot, who compiled the first encyclopedia, and his great compilation of articles intended as a future repository of the basics of human knowledge, systematizing it, and getting the people to think about these freedoms made them extremely motivated; sometimes motivated by the latest discussion of the new ideas, and later by their desperate attempt to enact these new principles.
Jacques Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat Jacque-Louis David’s festivals, honoring unity and indivisiblity. He had become famous as a neo-classical painting, but worked to become the pageant master of the revolution. A die hard jacobin, in 1793, his parade was full of symbolism, starting from the place de la bastille, going past stations celebrating the history of revolution. At the end stood a statue of liberation. At another demonstration a thousand doves were freed and flew off with banners tied along their legs reading “we are free”! They were salvos of artillery, songs, crowds on the chon de Mars. To motivate the people, the republican needed a symbol to represent to new nation. This was Marion. She was a goddess, an emblem that wouldn’t make anyone think of kings. But Mario didn’t have the masculine build of a female. They used Roman traditions of sculpture for abstract concepts of freedom of liberty, as Rome’s great mother goddess statue. And Marion wasn’t too far from Mary, which wasn’t too far from the former Catholic majority’s mother goddess Mary. They built temples and made statues of the French philosophes, musicians from the opera. The female liberty was the goddess of reason, in a temple of reason. The jacobin leaders wanted to lean harder on the church, but Robespierre believed that an all out war on the church, as the other jacobins wanted, would drive more people into the camps of their enemies. And it would, as civil war broke out in Vende, in western france. But, the revolutionaries wanted to save the people from fanacitism. So what did they do? Dechristianizers invaded churches and ripped paintings from the walls, tore down statues, and made bonfires out of holy relics, calling them the bonfires of fanatacis. “If this revolution is over and there are still the poor, it will have failed.” The French celebrated, linking revolution to an internation war against kings – threatening the social structure of neighboring cells, as the new anti-social state began to go to war with others, absorbing some, founding others with new, enlightening principles and declarations of civil rights. This was in the days before the revolution became violent. Dechristianers asked maybe they should put a donkey on a crowd to satirize kings, fouche, no, it would be too degrading for the donkey. These were the works on the other side of the rebellion witin the rebellion; the celebratory theatre of the new culture of revolution. And in one of their rituals, they were to put a bishop representing superstition into the fire and it turned into reason and was saved. Rituals of inversion were popular, where lay-people played out their rebellious, teenage ideals. There was a sense of civic movement, of millions activated around a specific motivational priciple, and at the heart of it was the conspiracy: the Calas conspiracy, a cause celebre brought to light by Voltaire, had popularized a horrible miscarriage of justice in the (I don’t know if there has ever been a more striking example of irony). The Red Priests were revolutionary blasphemers, someone who preached against the rich, referring to the philosophy of ‘sans culat’ Jesus. Some tred a middle path, who believed they could be catholic and republican, who believed in the revolution and the right to the free practice of religion, a deep wound within 19th century France. As Elizabeth feared catholic plots while she watched Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the situation in France was much more complicated, within the theory of the formation of social cells by the conspiratorial methods of thinking and mythmaking, especially as a social process, and the theory of society as organized around by “core” ideals, which motivate all peoples of passion groups in their duties. The reasons for our inclination towards conspiracy is how we project a non-personal inference onto a socially operable act. In otherwise, we’re suspicious because we’ve got guilty consciences.
- McLaren, A.N. “Political Culture in the Reign of Elizabeth I”. pp. 135
- Smith, Jeremy L. “Unlawful Song”. pp. 497
- Adams, Simon. “Elizabeth’s Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England.” CXXIII (501): pp. 457-458. doi: 10.1093/ehr/cen048
- Nagel, Joana. “Constructing Ethinicity” Social problems 41.1: 152-176
- Powers, Michael R. “Patterns, Real and Imagined: Observation and Theory.” In Acts of God and Man: Ruminations on Risk and Insurance, 191- 206. Columbia University Press, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/powe15366.17.
- Kilpatrick, Caroll. “Nixon Resigns” Washington Post, 9 August 1974. p. A01
- Woodward, Bob, Bernstein, Carl. “The Final Days” pp. 77-79
- Dalton, Russell J. “The social transformation of trust in government.” International Review of Sociology (2005): pp. 133-154
- Tacitus, Cornelius, “The Annals of Ancient Rome.” Vol. 60, 1973
- Kalmey, R.P. “Shakespeare’s Octavius and Elizabethan Roman History” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 18, no. 2. pp. 275-287
- Knight, Steven. “Jack the Ripper: the Final Solution”
- Moore, Alan. “From Hell”
- Wardman, Alan. “Rome’s Debt to Greece”. The Classical Review, New Series, Vol. 29, no. 2. pp. 110-112.
- Heinrich, Albert. “What is a Greek God?” pp. 19-40
16. Hadas, Moses. “Aesneas and the Tradition of the National Hero”. American Journal of Philology, vol. 69, no. 4. pp. 408-414
- Menzies, James W. “True Myth” pp. 21-40
- Clickering, Robert. “War Enthusiasm?” pp. 200-201
- De Toqueville, Alexis “the Old Regime and the Revolution”
- Schama, Simon. “Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution.” p. 84
- Warnes, David. “Chronicle of the Russian Tsars.” p. 210
- Warnes, David. Ibid. p. 211.
- Oaklander, Mandy. “Here’s Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories.” Time Magazine, 14 August 2015
- Ebert, Roger. “JFK Movie Review and Analysis” (1991) via: http://rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-jfk-1991
- Bugliosi, Vincent. “Reclaiming History: the Assassination of John F. Kennedy”. p. 1354
- Bugliosi, Vincent. Ibid. p. 1356
- Harrison, John M. “A Crusade and Its Problems.” The Review of Politics 37, no. 1. pp. 122-125.
- Swift, Art. “Majority in U.S. Still Believe JFK Killed in a Conspiracy” Gallup.com/poll/165893/majority-believe-jfk-killed-conspiracy.aspx
- “Famous Veterans: Oliver Stone” – military.com
- Stone, Oliver. Sklar, Zachary. “JFk: The Book of the Film”, p. 106.
- Stone, Oliver. Sklar, Zachary. Ibid. p. 107
- Prouty, L. Fletcher. “JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy.” p. 268
- Prouty, L. Fletcher. Ibid.
- Flavel, John H. “Cognitive Development” 2nd ed. p. 119
- Flavell, John H. Ibid. pp. 120-121
- Flavell, John H. Ibid. p. 121
- Nielsen, Wendy C. “Staging” Rousseau’s Republic” Vol. 43, no. 3, pp.268-285
- Lambe, Patrick J. “Biblical Criticism and Censorship in Ancien Regime France: The Case of Richard Simon.” Harvard theological review, 78(2-2 (1985) pp. 149-177
- Darnton, Robert. “The forbidden books of pre-Revolutionary France. Month (1991): 1-32
- “The Living Age” vol. 119, p. 83
- Schama, Simon. “The Power of Art: Jaques-Louis David”
- Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin. “The Marriage of Figaro” act V, scene III
43: Sargent, Thomas J. Velde, Francois R. “Macroeconomic Features of the French Revolution.” Journey of Political Economy 103, no. 3 (1995) pp. 474-518.
WHEN WATER CATCHES FIRE
I SUBMITTED MY FIRST novel to a publisher in the year 2000 at age 15. The Death of Madame Brisbois was a story about a pair of Siamese twins, Gilbertte and Chloe Brisbois. Chloe was perched on her sister’s left shoulder, incapable of moving of her own accord, though she felt everything; if Gilbertte held a flame to her palm, Chloe felt the fire. To her horror, one night she awoke unable to speak with a black bag over head and duct tape over her mouth. When her sister removed the bag Chloe looked down at her mother’s bed, covered in blood and strewn with guts. Their father was at work, but returned home shortly and called the police.
While in custody, Gilbertte stuck little needles into Chloe’s vocal chords, pricking her lips, burning her hand and pinching her feet, tickling her mercilessly until finally she stopped speaking and her voice atrophied. Unable to testify on her own behalf, she wasted away in prison as they awaited trial, until finally an unnecessary appendage, accepting of her fate and ready to die. The judge considered Chloe only briefly in passing sentence, in lieu of her vegetative state, unaware she could feel and hear. So when they were hanged there was no noose for Chloe. Her head sloped to the side as Gilbertte danced on the air as their horrified father looked on.
I received a letter a few weeks later from an editor at Kensington, who, as he put it, was writing to tell me that though they had decided not to move forward with the novel, Gaszi, the editor, was to work with me. While I would not be offered any money up front, I was asked to not feel discouraged. Gaz, a Persian speaking 22 year old who had left his home in Saudi Arabia during the war in the Persian Gulf, told me that he had found my manuscript on his desk with ‘development prospect’ affixed to it. He assured me, ‘This means you might suck now, but we don’t think you’ll suck forever.’ We were fast friends after that.
Regardless, I had not been able to publish anything, and had become lethargic, losing the will to even work on the other stories I had planned. Before the submission, I had won South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award two years in a row. My English teacher had submitted some of my poems to a publisher, later published in an anthology shortly after my 16th birthday. Gaz sent me a congratulatory letter.
‘It seems that you suck less and less,’ the card read. I still have it. He signed it with the affectionate, ‘To the end of your failings!’ We would talk on the phone not long after, and I liked him immediately. He was well-spoken and shy, guarded in demeanor, but genuinely kind and helpful, always there to goad me on when a rejection put me off my work and left me aimless, drinking what the Gaz called ‘fucking rocket fuel’, and my grades were failing, jeopardizing my hopes of getting into the college of my choice.
The Gaz remained at Kensington until various complaints surfaced against him in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, and finally he was let go, for his own safety, he was led to believe, adding that starvation was a strange way to keep him safe. They had never clued him in on what it was he’d done, or if he’d done anything at all. Perhaps it was something in the air, and he was a convenient bogeyman and scapegoat for a society in the throes of panic and convulsion. His employers cited discrepancies in his immigration papers, I would later learn.
The economy was in a ‘tough place’ and people had to make ‘tough decisions.’ I did what I could for him, as he had helped me with a second draft of The Death of Madame Brisbois, and found him a job at a publicity company where a friend worked in Virginia. There he would seek to help other authors, as he had helped me, to develop them, nurture their talent. His days were spent looking over manuscripts and sending back form replies of rejections, each accompanied with a kind dismissal, as mine had been. When my second draft was rejected, I put away my work entirely, unable to focus, as my editor had become more and more despondent, and it seemed, that I had become the only friend he had.
I was to interview at UVA, not far from where he worked at Sgarlat, and, rejected again, we decided to meet at my hotel before I caught a Greyhound to New York where I was to interview at Cornell and Columbia. Unsure of myself, my work, or whether I would ever write again, I was certain that I needed to get absolutely fucking wasted. Gaz arrived at my hotel just after dark with a bottle of Graygoose vodka in a brown bag. It wasn’t of the greatest quality, he said, but ‘better than that rocket fuel you drink.’ He was right, as per usual. The Gaz was always right. It might not have been rocket fuel, but it took us to the fucking moon.
We had a good time, watching COPS and playing cards. I don’t remember much of the evening, save for the blue and red lights that ran along the walls and ceiling. We talked about my future projects, and I had given up, but I didn’t tell him that. He believed in me, and I wanted him to. We talked about stories, why people told them, why people needed them. To some, he said, it was a way to cope, through shared trauma and happiness and experience, and for writers, it could be catharsis for a beaten man, those struggling to cope with the loss of a father or a mother.
“Take Titanic,” Gaz said, “the James Cameron movie.”
“You mean the one with Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and that Celine Dion song?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Never heard of it.”
He laughed, a common stupid joke we shared.
“The main characters, total fiction,” he said. “But that’s why people liked the movie, and why you hated it. People were brought in by the disaster and the spectacle, the bigger picture, but that’s not why it resonated. You can’t tell just the big picture. The audiences cared about the people. Two, beautiful young people. And, who does the audience cry for? For Jack and Rose. That’s all you have to learn, Brandon. You can’t paint nothing but a bigger picture, not quickly, take all that sweeping prose and bring it down to one or two people, maybe three, make it human. Put a face on it. No one weeps for the metal.”
He always took the mentor approach with me, being a bit older, and always spoke in an official capacity, despite being absolutely wasted. Forever informal, neat in that ruffled way and casual. When he looked at you, though, you saw he understood, that he felt, that he cared. A song came on and he seemed to relax, sweat beaded on his forehead and his cheeks flushed with drink. The mood ran the gamut from extreme merriment to the depths of regret and sorrow. When he saw me looking at the scars along the side of his face, revealed when his hair was brushed aside, he answered the question I couldn’t ask.
“I was burned when I was a kid,” he said, quick to change the subject. We talked about my plans, about what I’d do if I failed to get into college, the stories I was working on. He asked then if he could ride with me, to stay with me until I found out whether I had gotten into Cornell. He had always wanted to visit Ground Zero, he said, where the World Trade Centers had stood. We planned to board a Greyhound bus the next day, first to New York City, to Manhattan, where we would stay long enough to find out if I had gotten in, and then on to Ithaca. The night wound down and he was on his side of the bed, a small, strange little man. I got up to turn out the lights.
“Hey,” he called from the bed. “Leave the light on for me, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said. I brushed my teeth and washed my hands, leaving the bathroom light on, not too bright nor dim, and returned to my side of the bed and pulled the covers over us both.
“Goodnight, Gaz,” I said.
He was quiet for a minute. Then he looked at me with a smile on his face, eyes sincere and sympathetic.
“I like you, Brandon,” he said.
“I like you too, Gaz,” I said. “But I’m not that drunk.”
The drive to New York City wasn’t a long one. I had been to Maine on a piss-smelling Greyhound before and we stopped at that same connection point walled in by high fences of thatched metal, burgeoning with idlers and vagabonds, all staring at Gaz as we walked to the terminal to await the bus to Manhattan. They were unable to validate my ticket, so we spent fifteen minutes walking around trying to find someone to loan me the $5 I needed to pay for another one. Gaz offered to let me try on my own, and hung back. The first person I came across, a stout Chinese man in a tailored suit, agreed to pay for the ticket, but only if he could come with me to the teller window. I welcomed him to do so and he smiled ironically, as if to acknowledge his own cynicism.
We had planned as best we could. After checking into the hotel, and leaving my notebook there, we found a bus tour around Manhattan, one that would go by the port from where you could see the Statue of Liberty. The skinny tour attendee, with wire-rimmed spectacles and thinning hair, narrated for us:
The Statue of Liberty was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel, a gift to the United States from the People of France. It was dedicated on the 28th of October in the year 1886. The famous statue has long been a symbol of the free world and the promise of America. Its famous inscription reads: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, sending those, the homeless, tempest lost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Gaz’s bright brown eyes were swollen with tears. It was the highlight of the trip, as in hearing these words, the trauma momentarily fell away, a Band-Aid in the shower on a healing wound, and each passenger, from the youngest girl in the back of the bus holding tight to her mother’s hand to an old man covered in soot and wearing a checkered coat in front of us, at that moment we all believed, in what I wasn’t sure, but the silence was an acquiescence we shared, all part of the same multi-colored arabesque, a tapestry that warmed us all.
The rest of the drive was quiet. Though the guide read on in his high, reedy voice, telling us of the historic buildings, the different cultures, the Omnisphere and Prometheus. When we finally arrived at Ground Zero, empty land beneath an empty sky, it seemed profaned by its emptiness. I had never seen that part of New York City, not in person, but I’d seen that famous skyline. Everyone on the bus had seen it, surely, either in media or in person, glowing at night and proud in the afternoon.
The mood changed, a different, uneasy quiet settled over us, and the narrator fumbled at his words. Where those two buildings had been, there was nothing, not even rubble, but I saw the ghost of twisted metal strewn about, in my mind, the specter of bent steel and fire.
The tour ended without ceremony and by the time the bus pulled back into the lot everyone was exhausted. Gaz and I decided to take a walk instead of going back to the hotel, just to get some air. A hectic place, electric even, a circuit board of sparks between skyscrapers. Gaz looked pale so we ducked into Mesa Coyoacan a Mexican Restaurant on Graham Ave. in Brooklyn, where I checked my email and found that I had been accepted into Cornell. Gaz congratulated me and we sat down at a communal table on a long, shared bench. Everything was so expensive. Where I was from, a pack of cigarettes was $3 for a good brand, your Marlboros and your Newports, but there the cheap brands were $15. Living was expensive enough, I couldn’t overpay for death. The school books were too expensive.
“What do you think?” I asked. Gaz looked the menu over. He’d been quiet since we settled onto the bench. “I’ve never seen so many different tequilas.”
“Maybe that’s their thing,” Gaz said.
“You think someone said, ‘You know, there are a lot of Mexican restaurants in this city. You know what? I’ve got it. I get these flashes sometimes. Let’s have all the tequilas.’”
A kind laugh.
“You could do worse,” I added. “There’s a Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina called La Fagota. You know what their gimmick is? ‘We’re the only Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina. Nobody has better tacos. You know why? Nobody else has tacos.’”
Gaz laughed again. “You are truly from a backward culture. But hey, at least it’s affordable.”
When the waitress came over with a bowl of dip and tortilla chips I ordered first, a quesadilla and chicken wings. Gaz ordered two tequilas, a mid-expensive brand and an extremely rare are you fucking kidding me? brand. When the waitress brought them out, she sat both of them down in front of him with a wink in my direction. He slid the more expensive glass over to me. “On your success. Here’s hoping you don’t turn into an Ivy League shit.”
The meal was an enjoyable one, the food was good, and the staff kind. The waitress returned when we had drained our tequila glasses.
“Can I get you guys anything else?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “but thanks. I’m good.”
She look at Gaz, who had gone quiet, and asked, “How about you?”
Gaz shook off his gloom and looked up with light coming back into his eyes. “I’m great,” he said. “Could I get a salad to go?”
“Sure thing!” she said. She turned to me. “He gave you the better tequila.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said with a smile.
She smiled a broad I’m not an idiot, idiot smile. “Is it the best tequila you’ve never tasted or what?”
I laughed it off as she disappeared into a swinging door, off into the kitchen. The restaurant was quiet until a boisterous man in aviator sunglasses came in, wearing camo shorts and long grey socks pulled up to his knees. He looked at Gaz with a derisive cock of his head and sat close enough to us that he could be heard, though the table was communal, there was plenty of room further down the bench. Gaz and I tried to continue our conversation, but the man, who had started out innocent enough, grumbled at having to share his table with a “towel head”. That’s when Gaz lost it. He stood and flung his tequila glasses to the floor and they shattered against the jade tile.
“I didn’t bomb your buildings!” he shouted. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!”
I had him by the shoulders and tried to pull him back onto the bench. The man in his camo shorts took off his glasses and put them on the table. The door to the kitchen opened and two short-order cooks in rolled-up sleeves came out in a rush and hopped over the balustrade and got between them while I held Gaz back, raging like a drunken fire.
“I’m a fucking vet,” the man said. “I fought in Desert Storm, to keep you people safe, you ungrateful scumbags.”
“Hey!” I called. “As a vet, you must be used to dealing with bitches. But since there ain’t no bitches here, how about you fuck off?”
The cooks separated them and escorted the man out in a hurry, leaving his stupid glasses on the table. Gaz staggered backward and the moment teetered on the edge of madness as the staff busied about calming the other customers and diners. The waitress returned with Gaz’s salad and the cooks escorted us out. I picked up the aviator glasses and stuffed them in my pocket and paid, counting out a proper tip and rushing to the exit where the two cooks stood outside, careful to keep the man away from Gaz as tears streamed down his face as the man hobbled off shouting obscenities.
“Don’t you pay that fuckin’ moron no attention,” one of the cooks said. “You’re just as welcome here as that moron is.”
Still shaken, his teeth chattered in the heat. The cook handed him a cigarette, which he took, though I’d never seen him smoke. After he had calmed down and the two cooks were assured there was no further trouble, they gave him a friendly clout on the shoulder and reminded him, “Fuck that guy. You’re welcome here.”
We stood there in the street for a bit longer, the city loud and uninterrupted by our drama, the crowd streamed around us like a stone amid a stream, swerving gently before continuing about its course.
“I was wrong, Brandon,” Gaz said. “I cried for the metal.” He wiped his eyes on the back of his shirt, buried his face in his hands. “I cried for the metal.”
We stayed together for the rest of the summer after that. The PR firm Sgarlat let him work from his laptop, as he hadn’t left the hotel after that first night, and had been silent on the long bus ride to Ithaca. The campus was more beautiful than I had imagined any school would be. Gaz was overjoyed that I had been accepted, and took the occasion to tell me that if he could buy a new life, a new face, new skin, he’d stay with me there and finally teach me how to write.
The first night there we visited a reception at the Robert Purcell Community Center for a gathering of freshmen. I got to meet some of my professors. Everyone was kind and accommodating, well-mannered and cheerful, though I could tell that Gaz felt uncomfortable as the eyes moved about him as we passed through the crowds. We didn’t stay long. I shook hands with everyone I thought I should shake hands with and decided to get some air and tour the campus. I had the feeling that the smattering of voices, though unintelligible, had brought the scuffle at Mesa Coyoacan back into Gaz’s thoughts, and he had trouble enough coping with the eyes that seemed to follow him, like a xenophobic Mona Lisa. We left together, back out into the open air into the comfort of silence.
After leaving the community center we turned off Jessup Rd. and walked toward the large golf course, where we stopped to ask an older student how to find the Mundy Wildflower Gardens. He walked with us as far as the bridge to Judd falls Rd., left us at the Wildflower Garden, hurrying off after a cordial handshake and good-bye. To look upon the flowers, Gaz’s demeanor changed. I decided to pick some flowers to send him while he stood enamored by a ghost orchid. I had a flower from each species in my secret bouquet, to give him the following morning before he left for Virginia. We left the Wildflower Garden, as he wanted to see as much of the campus as possible before our strange trip together had to come to an end. We found our way, with a little help, back onto Judd Falls Rd. then headed for Werly Island, then onto Beebe Lake. We weren’t the only ones to walk that well-beaten path. Though the gardens and the roads between had been sparse, many students had camped on the embankments around the lake.
“Hey!” Gaz said, tugging at my jacket. “Let’s go talk to those ladies there.”
We hurried after the two young women who were jogging slowly. When we caught up Gaz was the first to speak. “Good afternoon!” he called. “Mind if my friend and I walk with you?”
“Not at all,” the brunette said. Both were sweating, their hair pulled back in neat buns, and wearing Adidas windbreakers. “Are you a freshman?” the blonde girl asked. Her name was Jennifer. Her slightly taller friend introduced herself as Vanessa.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“Because you’re polite,” Vanessa said. They laughed together and we laughed with them, falling in line with the path they were on. “My friend Gaz here, he told me this lake was magic. No! Really. It’s not as dumb as it sounds.”
The girls looked at each other smiling.
“Let’s hear it then,” Vanessa said. We kept pace as best we could.
“Well the legend goes,” I said, “that if you walk around the lake with a friend, or a girlfriend or boyfriend, you’ll never part. It sounds silly, I know. I know. But, I thought if we walked together, maybe it’d come true, and we’d always be friends.
On his last night Gaz stayed with me in a cramped dorm room. I sat at my new desk looking through a list of books I’d have to pick up from the campus bookstore. Gaz had the news on again. Channel after channel, violence and opinions about violence, terrorism and threats, featuring violence. Then he saw that tape; a tape posted to the Al Jazeera agency in Qatar, an old VHS supposedly delivered by Osama bin Laden, a tape that would later leak onto the internet, onto smut sites like Rotten.com and Ogrish, digital faces of death. I had watched them, how could you not? It’s a curious thing, to be drawn to violence, by nature, as flies are to shit. I didn’t enjoy it, but I thought I should watch it, maybe by way of misguided empathy, so that I could suffer for the people who I never could have helped.
I tried to go to bed early that night but Gaz woke me up sometime in the early morning. He had sat in the darkness listening to the news, the lurid images flashing against his face, breaking him bit by bit.
“Brandon,” he said. “Are you awake?”
“Dude, I’m awake now … you can’t wake somebody up to ask if they’re awake.”
“I miss my home,” Gaz said. “Saudi Arabia, you’ve heard of it, I’m sure. Right? You’ve seen Aladdin, that’s the image, of barbaric peoples. I was born there… What do you think of when you think of Saudi Arabia? Camels? The camels, ah! They aren’t even indigenous. We import them! And that’s where those people were from, who destroyed your buildings, Saudi Arabia they say. But they weren’t from my home, not that place where my heart is. There’s something about home that doesn’t change, no matter where you go. What do you call it? A haunting, maybe, that follows you. I was born in Saqeren, and it’s a beautiful place, with waterfalls and granite walls, roads carved into the mountains. Maybe I miss the memory, maybe it’s a phantom, conjured by a starved memory looking for images of comfort and home.”
I didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing, but he continued.
“I was the youngest child in my family, a family of four. My dad had disappeared in the war. My sister Anahita was the oldest, and I adored her, but we were not close. She ran away or was kidnapped and we never saw her again. I had two brothers, and I loved them. Of course I didn’t. Even Kohinoor, my oldest, what an ass! He was so stubborn, and always talking down to me and my other brother, Kaveh, and I loved him, he was just fourteen when he died. But we both looked up to Kohinoor, we called him Kohin. He was the oldest, heir to our meager lands. And he was the type to play the hero.
“Kohin believed in fighting, but no one in our family would support that madness! He was confused, like so many during the war. He was mad at the world and wanted to fight for something. People are not born monsters. He wasn’t one, not at first, but got in trouble with the police, but then the police were taken away and replaced by scary men in black with foreign accents. Gaz isn’t even my name, Brandon. I don’t know what it is… I’m lucky though, plenty of kids like me, thousands of them, thousands died in the war, the one that buffoon boasted about at dinner. Those kids died, and not one printed word, only victories for the forces of freedom, for heroes.
“And now, I see everywhere eyes that follow me with contempt. I’m not a barbarian! Surely it is no crime to be born! Those police officers, the ones that were replaced, they weren’t cavemen! But it’s on the news, so they’re cavemen. They weren’t fools, they were just regular people, with families and jobs and hobbies. And they just disappeared, pop pop pop in the dark, like blowing bubbles. That was my favorite thing… “We used to have those little toys, plastic sticks with a hoop at the end, we’d dip it in gasoline and blow bubbles through it and they’d float for a while, pretty in the sun and pop. Pop, pop, pop, they’d disappear. But then everyone was angry. The problem was, they had to be mad at something, and it was a choice between others or themselves. No one chooses themselves.
“What do you do when your enemy is the dark? Not in the dark, but the dark itself, with no way to fight it without it swallowing you up? No one knew who to fight, but they wanted to, they needed to. They were being hurt. So they tore each other to pieces. When you brutalize a people, when you handle them like beasts and monsters, you don’t make angels of them, you don’t reform them, you make monsters of them, monsters or ghosts and there is no other choice, no choice but to run and hope someone is there on the other side of darkness, like someone here, this country I’ve loved, where you’re not charged for the sins of your father, or your people, your culture. I ran. From my family, my brothers… They were kids, too, they never grew up.
“Kaveh, he became a ghost, and Kohinoor a monster. Ghosts are real, Brandon. Some are kind, those that die peacefully, in their sleep and surrounded by love. But some, like those in your great buildings, those are angry ghosts. And now I want to fight. I need to fight, but don’t I want to. I don’t want to be a ghost, Brandon, I don’t want to die like my brother, or become a monster. But if I must, I should want to be a kindly ghost, one that helps the others on, through the fire into peace, into rest. And that eats at you, fighting with yourself, eating you from the inside like a botfly until your heart is black and you want to make this world bend into the darkness with you to drown it of its light.
“The last day in Seqaren I remember, that I know is real, because I have the scars, which is why I prefer the dream. I was walking down a hill towards a little pond, and children were already there splashing about. It always dirty that pool, but that day it was as dirty as I ever seen it. I thought someone had poured ink in the water, but I stripped down to my trunks and stood on the edge of the beach with broken bottle glass cutting into my feet. Then I saw Kahven running down the hillside with a puff of dust trailing behind him and then Kohinoor on his heels with a gun in his hand
“I thought it was some stupid game, but I was a child, and so scared, I was always scared. Kaveh grabbed me with both hands and pulled me into the water with all his clothes on and yelled ‘take a deep breath!’ just before we went under, taking me beneath the blackened water with his fingers pinching my nostrils. I struggled to come up for air, but Kaveh held me under. Everything was happening so fast and I popped back up and saw Kohin being chased by men all dressed in black, god dammit! Have you ever heard a gunshot, muffled by water? It rippled out, dozens of shots at once, tearing Kohin to pieces, when you’re hit you’re just a mix of blood and water and gas. And they followed him to the edge of the pool but he kept moving somehow, struggling along the glass beach on his hands and knees towards the water where I was hiding with Kaveh. And before he died his eyes widened with surprise as he saw my little head bob up and gasp for air and breathing oil, an oil spill in the water like octopus ink, and because the little pool was between two high cliffs, the shadows of the overhanging rock kept us hidden until the water caught fire.
“When he saw me he stopped crawling and the men caught up with him finally. I struggled to get to him, the men were shouting but I didn’t understand them. He mouthed something to me and put his hands behind his head, with his fingers interlocked, he was dying anyway, and just closed his eyes and lay there. I was frozen, wrapped in fire, as the muffled gunshot rang out muffled with the water in my ears dulling the sound. He fell over with that same smile on his face. I was a fucking child. And then the men came up, all I saw were there eyes and those guns, and dead or not they shot him in the head. One of the men in black pointed at the water and Kaveh grabbed my nostrils and pulled me under water, fire white now blanketing the surface.
“One of the men, and I don’t know who he was ’cause I just saw his eyes and the bottom of his face when he pulled that mask up and took out another gun, a little pistol, and shot Kohinoor in the head. He just shot him again, shooting a corpse. What kind of madness must be bred to have one man shoot another knowing he’s dead? He’s just wasting bullets, still angry, killing a corpse without remorse or pity or anything. Then he just went through his pockets, took some of his bullets, took his gun, and walked over to one of the other men in black and came back with a burning sock in one hand and a white paper cup in the other. That gasoline taste was in my mouth, I’ll never forget it… Then the man dropped the sock on my brother and whoosh! He goes up in flames. They pushed him into the water but he kept burning … turning into soot, not ash, the gasoline in my eyes between bubbles.
“I guess they were content that he was dead by then, I took one last pull of air and closed my eyes and prayed, I’ve never known or believed in the customs of my people but I begged any listening god to take me to a place where I could breathe, a place without fire. He was dead on the surface face down and I saw the blank expression on his face, molting like that, like shedding skin, peeling away with the fabric of his t-shirt each layer of skin. And something shook the earth in the distance… It shocked them as much as me and Kaveh looking through the gasoline bubbles rimmed in bows of rain, and that finally scared them, when the water had caught fire. It’s … They ran off, back up the hill, and Kaveh held me there, trying to protect me, and he drowned eventually and I floated up to the surface That’s what happened to my face… I know, I know. And somehow I kept burning, deep down, and each breath was pure fire filling my lungs. It could have been forever, and it died out, finally. I don’t remember the rest so well, but I’ve been on fire ever since, when water touches me, cold or hot, I keep burning.
“I remember mama coming for me and sobbing. She didn’t want to leave their bodies their for the carrion birds. But me and mama left anyway. We left without them. We got into the back of a truck and waited. Kids were stacked on top of each other like piles of clothes wrapped around bones. We drove through the night and into the next afternoon. We met an American there and his wife and his two kids, and the truck driver told us that we would have to learn our new names, and began passing out Egyptian visas. I didn’t know what they were, I just remember staring down at the face of a kid who looked like me, and was about my age. I memorized his birthday and his name. I don’t even know my real birthday, Brandon. So I never know when to celebrate.”
There was a long silence.
“Let’s say today is your birthday, then,” I said. “You can have those flowers from the atrium, and take them with you if you go back.”
“You know,” he said, “I can’t go back, unless they make me. Where I must fight or be a monster, one side or another, a monster or collateral I’ll end up a ghost like my brothers, forgotten in all the confusion of just another afternoon.”
“Who’s going to teach me to write if you leave, Gaz?” I asked. “Let’s be practical here, you won’t have time to edit my stories if you die.”
He laughed, the vitreous humor crusting in his eyes with embarrassment. He wiped it away.
“I’ll haunt your Word processor, and leave you notes here and there. We’ll develop that talent someday.”
“I knew I could rely on you.”
I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. Thinking back to it now, I wish I could have comforted him, even if I had to lie. He kept on drinking. And so did I. The television was still blaring news, the same sort that had dominated the airwaves. Finally I turned it back to the Satellite standard music station. He hadn’t lost his composure, not completely, and he hummed some little song. Well, I’m not sure it was a song, as I didn’t know the language. I butted in.
“Have you ever heard Anna Moffat sing?” I asked. “Madame Butterfly? I have to pretend to be cultured now.”
He shuffled through his mp3 player and put on a piece of music. The instrument was a rabab, he told me. I think. I didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful and serene, and I thought if they could import camels, maybe they could import a waterfall and make an atrium, and plant one for everybody, every ghost, each man and woman and child they could’t account for. I wanted to help, or be consoling, or confer in him something personal, or say something wise and meaningful. Sometimes silence is the best consolation.
He had shaken it off somehow by the time he started packing. Or appeared to do so, regaining a measure of his composure, he was smiling and laughing. Maybe it was for my sake. Tears welled up in my eyes. He thumbed them away and wiped them on his church, then took a handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to me. His expression changed when he saw the hurt in my eyes.
“Hey,” he said. “I like you, Brandon.”
“I like you too, Gaz.”
“I’ll try, my friend.”
“And …” he added, “You could have saved Chloe, in your story. If her father had confessed to the murder… The criminal would’ve gotten away, but the innocent would have lived.”
I woke the next morning and he was gone. All his things, his assortment of flowers, those aviator sunglasses. Sometimes I imagine him wearing them, somewhere in a garden, by a waterfall in Arabia, surrounded by ghost orchids, blowing bubbles. I have looked and looked, through newspapers and on the internet, fearing that he had joined the fight for the sake of fighting. I kept a garden when I moved back to South Carolina, and planted a white ghost orchid, Gazsi’s ghost. He’d disappeared. Just like that, a gasoline bubble going pop.